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Government downplays COVID-19 case numbers to open up sooner

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

According to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, when Australia’s vaccination rate reaches 70-80%, the country can “open up” regardless of case numbers.

The Prime Minister said this week:

“Cases will not be the issue once we get above 70%.”

Morrison continues to insist that it’s entirely unnecessary to focus on case numbers, which, as the NSW Premier helpfully pointed out in July, are only as high as they are because of all the testing.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

‘Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the high case numbers reflected the high level of testing.’

This Trumpian framing implied a causal relationship between testing and infection and was a portent of spin to come.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister went on to state that:

“Dealing with serious illness, hospitalisation, ICU capabilities, our ability to respond in those circumstances, that will be our goal.” 

Quite how the Prime Minister plans to achieve any of this without considering case numbers remains unclear. The effectiveness of doctors, hospitals and ICU capabilities depends entirely on case numbers and should those numbers continue to rise, our ability to respond to them is inevitably challenged.

But: “Cases will not be the issue once we get above 70%.”

Modelling produced for the Government by the Doherty Institute stresses that as well as high vaccination rates, there also need to be optimum test, trace, isolation and quarantine (TTIQ) measures in place before it is safe to open up. For those who prefer an explainer rather than tackling the report, Katharine Murphy has provided one here.

Consider this — if daily case numbers, sourced and unsourced, are considered unimportant and are therefore not made available to the public, which appears to be the Prime Minister’s intention, we cannot know if the TTIQ measures are adequate for the circumstances. If daily infection figures are withheld, it is then possible to conceal the efficacy or otherwise of the testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine measures experts claim are essential to a safe re-opening. 

Without the daily numbers, we have no way of knowing if indeed it is safe, according to the Doherty guidelines, to open up. We are entirely dependent on Mr Morrison and Ms Berejiklian assuring us that it is. There is no oversight. Vital information about our daily circumstances would be unavailable. Governments would yet again escape accountability.

The continuing emphasis on the irrelevancy of daily case numbers by Morrison and Berejiklian, unquestioningly reported by some media, seems suspiciously like a softening up of the public, with the goal of removing the figures from the public domain altogether. There is no doubt that the increasing numbers in NSW are damaging to the LNP at both a state and federal level. It is not a good look, particularly when every other state has either kept its numbers low or reached zero.

It is clearly in the interests of the Morrison and Berejiklian Governments to downplay the significance of daily infection rates while stressing vaccination rates as the primary indicator of safe opening, regardless of case numbers.

The Premier said:

“Once you get to 70% double doses, it will be a situation where the vaccine rate will be more critical than how many cases we have.”

If daily infections continue to increase, it is likely that contact tracers will be overwhelmed. There will not be the optimum TTIQ measures in place. According to the modelling, under those conditions, it is unsafe to re-open despite high vaccination rates. The modelling is clear. We need both safeguards in place to safely open.  

There are intimations that the NSW contact tracing system is under considerable stress. Teams have been brought in from other states and private contractors are being used. Around 68% of NSW cases in the last week are under investigation, meaning the time they spent in the community whilst infectious is unknown.

As well:

‘...latest reports show a decline in the number of people with COVID-19 who have been interviewed by public health staff within one day of notification to NSW Health, and a decline in the speed in which testing labs are notifying NSW Health of new positive cases.’

In the last 24 hours in NSW, there have been 619 infections with an unknown source.

In the last week, there have been 3,421 cases with an unknown source.

On 14 July, Ms Berejiklian stated that the number that really matters is the number of cases in the community for all or part of their infectious period. Driving that number down was crucial to lifting the lockdown, she maintained. On that day in July, there were 24 cases.

Berejiklian said:

“Twenty-four people were infectious in the community. We need to get that down to as close to zero as possible.”

Today, there are potentially 680 infectious cases in the community and the Premier appears to have abandoned her goal. She no longer refers to the urgent necessity to reduce the “wild” numbers.

There is no doubt that Berejiklian and Morrison are driven by their desire to retain power, rather than by concern for the citizens to whom they owe a duty of care. To this end, it is prudent to assume they will engage in whatever subterfuge they feel necessary to achieve their goal. Opening up without all the safety measures recommended by experts is a certainty, if they believe they can get away with it.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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