The announcement played over the plane’s public address system as the flight from London – carrying a friend returning from a funeral – taxied into the Sydney Airport terminal.
Under current NSW rules, passengers have been asked to take a rapid antigen test within 24 hours and self-isolate until they get 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 who don’t have them,” my friend messaged me. “Sounds pretty crazy. I thought they would hand them out to anyone who landed.”
Welcome to A’straya.
There are many stories about the seeming silliness of the conflicts created by the dismantling of public health policies – statements of obligations to meet various testing requirements, or rules that simply no longer make sense – but we’ll start with this one, because it has strands getting into so many other messes right now.
Consider this: If my friend had landed in Queensland, she would have had to self-quarantine for 14 days. In Western Australia, hotel quarantine for 14 days at own expense.
Each state and territory now has its own rules. But it also raises the question of why we still have border restrictions in place.
As former Department of Health chief Jane Halton said at 7.30am this week, the value of restrictions is questionable as the rate of COVID infections in Australia is now higher than in the states United States or United Kingdom. (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 no longer work
Closing international borders was one of the first things governments did to “keep us safe”. But they no longer work. Today, their main effect is to keep out large numbers of workers we have traditionally relied on to fill jobs, even before the shortages created by people falling ill with COVID or being forced into self-isolation. According to this week’s figures, there were 400,000 job vacancies in Australia in November.
Perhaps we could add a requirement for BYO RATs to the requirement – for those who are currently allowed to come here – to prove that they are double vaccinated.
Rapid antigen testing has suddenly become key to how society works, and the best symbol of how the whole “government gets off your face” seems to have gone so dramatically wrong over the past six weeks.
This post coincided with the arrival of Omicron, a development that required perhaps the biggest shift in politics yet.
At his post-National Cabinet press conference on Thursday afternoon, the Prime Minister observed that the policy objective of the National Cabinet was “a constant day-to-day process of balancing the need to keep people in work and to protect our hospitals”.
The only problem is how ill-equipped the government seems to handle this balancing task.
The national cabinet – meaning the states as well as the federal government, of course – agreed on Thursday to further relax “close contact” rules requiring members of the same household as a COVID case s isolated for seven days.
With the potential for up to 10% of the workforce furloughed, according to the Prime Minister, but with some industries suggesting the rate in their businesses may be as high as 50%, it was an understandable move.
The hinge on which it all works
The new regime means that workers in transport, freight, logistics, emergency services, energy, water, waste management, food, beverage, telecommunications, data, broadcasting, media, education and child care will be allowed to return to work immediately following a negative rapid test.
And, of course, there is the catch.
Rapid antigen testing is the hinge on which it all works. Yet the slightly irritated way in which the Prime Minister has handled questions about the lack of testing speaks volumes about how governments collectively seem to not only have (not) planned or anticipated the likely demand for testing, but seem to be almost at a point where everything became too difficult for them to know what to do about it.
The federal government was buying tests for places under its responsibility like elderly care, the prime minister said, and states and territories were doing the same.
And the companies – well, some of them – had told him that they had their own supplies (raising, again, the question of why, if it was so obvious to the companies that they had the need for these tests was not so obvious to governments, especially when many voices, including WADA, were urging them to do so).
The idea that someone could have done some kind of collective national supply inventory and figured out where the holes were seemed like too much to wait.
Instead, governments are announcing rules about who can, or even “should” be at work, seemingly without feeling obligated to provide the tools it compels people to use – RATs – to do so.
Small businesses and unions call the response insufficient and, furthermore, demand that RATs be free for all, in the interests of both helping the economy function and stopping the spread of disease and disease. people who get sick (and dare to say put more pressure on hospitals).
The disconnect between the lived experience of most ordinary people and government pronouncements only seems to be growing.
Fatigue with the role of government
Problems with the distribution of childhood vaccines this week – which saw GPs having to cancel many appointments after receiving emails saying there were supply issues – were greeted by protesters. bold statements, including from the National COVID Vaccine Task Force Coordinator, Lt. Gen. JJ Frewen, that there was plenty of supply in the country.
That may be the case, but why not just explain what were obviously logistical problems in their distribution, rather than suggesting that they didn’t exist?
The weariness with the role of government at present almost feels like it is greater with governments than with a population that may just feel a little abandoned.
For just as governments are throwing their hands in the air about the supply of RAT (“many of them will be arriving here in a few weeks”), governments of both political persuasions are now overwhelmingly opposed to any new form of economic support, even amid signs the economy is back to the lows seen during the Delta outbreak last year.
The economic crisis, the argument goes, is not the result of measures imposed by the government, and therefore there is no responsibility for them to offer support.
It’s hard not to feel that references to a spike in cases, now in NSW and other states in the coming weeks, reflect a weary view by governments that it’s just something that will have to be endured, and then it will go a way.
Well it could. To be replaced by another manifestation of a crisis for which we are underprepared.
Laura Tingle is the main political correspondent for 7.30.
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