Government response to COVID a series of political failures

The federal government’s pandemic strategy consisted of a series of mistakes that could have been easily avoided, writes Dr. Kim Sawyer.

FOR YEARS I have watched the failure of Australian policymakers. Alternative voices not heard, policies put aside, recommendations not activated. The signing of political failure.

In 1994-95, I appeared before two Senate committees on public interest whistleblowing. The committees made 55 recommendations, including one to establish a federal public interest disclosure agency – a federal ICAC. It never happened. None of the other recommendations ever happened. It took 20 years for a federal whistleblower law.

It is the same in other areas. In 2001, I appeared before a Senate university committee. The committee unanimously recommended the creation of a university ombudsman. It never happened.

We rarely elect politicians with the foresight to govern for the future rather than the past. Politicians are too dependent on the 24 hour news cycle and popularity to rule for the future. The necessary policies are implemented too little and too late, whether for climate change or corruption.

The pandemic has amplified the problem. Australia’s pandemic plan was never really a plan. It was a hasty policy driven by a conveyor belt of models and projections, rather than foresight.

There were three errors. The first was to fail to recognize the importance of ventilation. We only had to look at SARS to see what we had to do. Quarantine people in specially designed facilities where windows could open. Establish a specially designed hospital where windows could open.

As I have written many times, SARS provided the answer in Vietnam. A story of two hospitals, one air conditioned with closed windows, the other opening windows. The one whose windows opened had no infection.

The second mistake was to test. In March 2020, I wrote that we need to test across the population, to find the spreaders before they spread. The reason we had to do this was because so many infected people had no symptoms or only mild symptoms. The only way to do mass testing was to use rapid tests.

Unfortunately, we put all of our eggs in one basket for one test – the PCR test. It was a mistake. The PCR test is the most accurate test within a window of five to 15 days after infection, but it is not suitable for mass testing. The use of PCR tests has generated long queues at test stations, long delays in processing results and excessive disruption to daily life.

During most of the pandemic, nearly 99% of test results were negative. We have wasted a lot of resources on uninfected people. Instead, we could have developed a rapid antigen testing strategy as early as 2020.

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In the first half of 2020, rapid antigenic tests were in development by Australian companies, but they were excluded from the policy picture. Pathology groups dominated policy-making. The pathology companies have extracted monopoly profits. They increased the price of the test from $ 25 to $ 100 and made the government pay.

Rapid antigen tests could have been produced as early as July 2020 at a cost of $ 10 to $ 15 – a fraction of PCR tests. Why then were they not approved? Billions of tests could have been manufactured, but the government has chosen to ignore the manufacturers of rapid tests and continue with the long queues, long lead times and high costs of PCR tests.

The arrival of Omicron exposed the loophole in the strategy. Omicron is so transmissible that almost everyone will need to be tested. The only answer is a quick test. We have now adopted the testing strategy that could have been adopted 18 months ago. Failure to listen to alternative opinions has led to existing shortages of rapid test kits. We failed to see what we needed to see.

The third mistake was in the immunization schedule. Australia spent $ 8 billion on vaccines, but the timing was wrong. We have obtained 54 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, including 50 million to be manufactured locally. AstraZeneca was first approved by the Therapeutic Goods Authority on February 15, 2021, after having been approved in the UK six weeks earlier.

A vaccination program could have taken place in the first half of 2021 in anticipation of an expected winter wave of the virus. Yet, by September, only a third of the population over 16 had been fully immunized. We vaccinated too late for Delta to arrive.

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Likewise, we knew the Omicron variant would arrive here in December. We could have accelerated the recall program and not close the vaccination centers during the Christmas-New Year period. We could have reduced the time between the second and the third dose earlier. We did not anticipate what might have been planned.

The vaccination program should be accompanied by education explaining the vaccines, the risks and the benefits, and that vaccination is not only to protect yourself but also to protect your neighbor. Lack of education has been costly for the AstraZeneca vaccine. The risks of blood clots associated with the vaccine were greatly exaggerated when the risk of clots associated with COVID-19 was ten times higher.

The cost was vaccine reluctance. As of October, AstraZeneca’s unused vaccine inventory exceeded 7 million doses. Australia had the opportunity not only to immunize its own population, but also to provide vaccines to countries that could not afford them. We have lost our advantage.

I have witnessed time and again the inability of decision makers to anticipate what might be expected. The pandemic may be our wake-up call, but we will need a different breed of politicians.

Dr Kim Sawyer is Principal Investigator at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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