The announcement came over the plane PA system as the flight from London — carrying a friend returning from a funeral — taxied to the terminal at Sydney airport.
In line with current NSW rules, passengers were told to do a rapid antigen test within 24 hours and isolate until they got a result.
But, as is the case almost everywhere in Australia, there were no RATs available at the airport.
She had brought some tests with her “but there must be people coming in who don’t have them”, my friend messaged. “Seems pretty crazy. I thought they would be handing them out to everyone disembarking.”
Welcome to A’straya.
There are plenty of stories of the seeming idiocy of the conflicts created by unravelling public health policies — pronouncements of obligations to meet various testing requirements, or rules that just don’t make sense any more — but we’ll start with this one, because it has strands that go into so many other shambles just now.
Consider this: if my friend had landed in Queensland, she would have had to go into 14 days home quarantine. In Western Australia, into 14 days hotel quarantine at her own expense.
Every state and territory now has their own rules. But it also raises the question of why we still even have border restrictions in place.
As the former head of the Department of Health, Jane Halton, told 7.30 this week, the value of the restrictions is questionable when the rate of COVID infections in Australia is now higher than in the US or UK. (As of January 12, 397.4 per 100,000, compared to 234.4 in the US and 221 in the UK, according to the Financial Times coronavirus tracker.)
Closed borders aren’t working anymore
Closed international borders were one of the first things governments did to “keep us safe”. But they aren’t working anymore. Now their main effect is keeping out a lot of the workers we have traditionally relied on to fill jobs, even before the shortages created by people getting sick from COVID or being forced to isolate. According to this week’s numbers, there were 400,000 job vacancies in Australia in November.
Maybe we could add an obligation to BYO RATs to the requirement — to those who are currently allowed to come here — to prove that they are double vaccinated.
Rapid antigen tests have suddenly become the key to society functioning, and the best symbol of how the whole “government getting out of your face” thing seems to have gone so spectacularly awry in the past six weeks.
That messaging just happened to coincide with the arrival of Omicron, a development which required perhaps the biggest gear shift in policy so far.
At his post-national cabinet press conference on Thursday afternoon, the Prime Minister observed that national cabinet’s policy objective was “a constant daily process of balancing the need to keep people at work and to protect our hospitals”.
The only problem is how inadequately the government seems to be equipped to manage this balancing task.
National cabinet — that’s the states as well as the federal government, of course — agreed on Thursday to further relax the “close contacts” rules requiring members of the same household as a COVID case to isolate for seven days.
With the potential for up to 10 per cent of the workforce off work, according to the PM, but with some industries suggesting the rate in their businesses is up to 50 per cent, it was an understandable move.
The hinge on which this whole thing works
The new regime will mean workers in the transport, freight, logistics, emergency services, energy, water, waste management, food, beverage, telecommunications, data, broadcasting, media, education and childcare industries will be allowed to return to work immediately after a negative rapid test.
And, of course, there’s the rub.
The rapid antigen tests are the hinge on which this whole thing works. Yet the slightly irritated way the PM dealt with questions about the lack of tests said much about the way governments collectively not only seem to have (not) planned, or anticipated, the likely demand for the tests, but seem to be almost at a point where it’s all just become too hard for them to work out what to do about it.
The federal government was buying tests for places within its responsibilities like aged care, the PM said, and the states and territories were doing the same.
And businesses — well, some of them — had told him they had their own supplies (begging, once again, the question of why, if it was so obvious to businesses that they needed these tests, it wasn’t that obvious to governments, particularly when many voices, including the AMA, were urging them to do so).
The idea that someone might have done some sort of stocktake of the collective national supply and worked out where the holes were seemed to be too much to expect.
Instead, governments announce rules about who can, or even “should” be at work, without feeling any apparent obligation to provide the tools it is obliging people to use — RATs — to do so.
Small businesses and the unions are calling out the response as inadequate, and further, calling for RATs to be free for all, in the interests of both helping the economy to function and stopping the further spread of disease and people getting sick (and dare one say putting more pressure on hospitals).
The disconnect between the lived experience of most ordinary people and the pronouncements of government only seems to grow.
Weariness about the role of government
Problems in the distribution of kids’ vaccines this week — which saw GP practices having to cancel swathes of appointments after receiving emails saying there were problems with supply — were met with bold declarations, including from the coordinator of the national COVID Vaccine taskforce, Lieutenant General JJ Frewen, that there was plenty of supply in the country.
That might be the case, but why not just explain what were obviously some logistical problems in the distribution of them, rather than suggest they didn’t exist?
The weariness about the role of government just now almost feels like it is greater with governments than a population which may just feel a little abandoned.
For just as governments throw their hands in the air about the supply of RATs (“lots of them will get here in a few weeks’ time”), so governments of both political persuasions now overwhelmingly argue against any new forms of economic support, even amid signs the economy has been tanking back to the lowest levels seen in last year’s Delta outbreak.
The economic slump, the argument goes, is not a result of government-imposed measures, and therefore there is no responsibility for them to offer support.
It’s hard not to get the sense that the references to a peak in cases, now in NSW and in other states in coming weeks, reflects a weary view of governments that this is just something that will have to be endured, and then it will go away.
And well it might. Only to be replaced by another manifestation of a crisis for which we are underprepared.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.