Governments, especially those from the conservative side of politics, never waste an opportunity to exploit turmoil – except if it’s an issue that doesn’t suit their ideological pursuits, such as climate change or bushfires – and the performance of the Morrison government during the coronavirus crisis is an excellent example of politicians using a crisis to gain political advantage.
Current polling indicates the electorate has been very impressed with the Prime Minister’s performance, with a 68 per cent approval in the most recent Newspoll released on 26 April. But this rating is masking Scott Morrison’s actual performance, which is far less convincing and more or less the same as before the coronavirus crisis commenced: obfuscation, confusion, ideologically and politically-driven action, and, ultimately, not very effective.
Those in the community hoping for a period of more enlightened politics and co-operative problem-solving would be disappointed with the past few months; a national leadership more intent on keeping a close look-out for political opportunities, rather than guiding the country towards a shared outcome that could benefit as many people as possible. In a time when a different leadership style is required, it’s business as usual.
Certainly, the National Cabinet comprising the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers, has been successful in developing unified social distancing practices, policies governing the closure of non-essential businesses that could attract larger groups of people, and economic stimulus support – measures of over $300 billion – although the support offered through the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs has been confusing to follow and slow in distribution.
But there’s still a large degree of difference over whether schools across Australia can and should be fully opened up again, to which extent, and when: on one hand, Morrison wants schools to open up immediately, whereas the Premiers and Chief Ministers are reluctant and are adopting a more cautious approach.
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The federal Chief Medical Officer, Dr Brendan Murphy, and his two deputy CMOs, Dr Paul Kelly and Dr Nick Coatsworth have been fully supportive of Morrison’s narrative to have schools reopened sooner, rather than later, citing a five-page analysis from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, COVID-19 in schools – the experience in NSW, as evidence for their case, as well as using the report as evidence to support their statements that social distancing is not required in schools, even though the report did not make that finding.
The evidence is unclear
There is other international evidence from German virologist Christian Drosten cautioning against reopening schools. Drosten suggests schools can act as hubs for COVID-19 transmission and although children seem to have less severe symptoms when compared to adults, the children that have acquired COVID-19 are as infectious as adults.
Schools in Denmark reopened on 15 April and the COVID-19 reproduction rate has increased from 0.5 to 0.9 over the past two weeks (keeping the reproduction rate under 1.0 is essential in reducing the spread of the virus, and Australia’s current rate is 0.8). Why is this essential research and evidence ignored by the Morrison government?
Of course, there are very sound educational reasons for returning schools to their normal operating capacities as soon as possible. Not all students completing their studies from home will have the same access to the technology required to perform their work, and not all schools are equally applying educational practices and schedules.
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Some schools have a 9am–3pm timetable, with students logging onto subject modules online through Google Classrooms or Moodle, with their regular class teacher appearing live in each session. Other schools offer a set amount of work released at 9am, and the school day for those students ends when the set work has been completed, sometimes as early as 11am. Clearly, educational opportunities have not been consistent and, for this reason, schools do need to return as soon as possible. But at what cost to public health?
Public health policy is usually determined through a range of rigorous findings compiled into extensive reports, summarised into a range of recommendations for governments to implement. It is then up to government to decide which recommendations it wishes to implement (if any), according to its political intentions, and in the interests of community health.
Reports are always political and greater caution needs to be taken in the context of public health. But in the case of schools, the Morrison government is making a political and economic decision, rather than a health decision in the best interests of students, teachers and parents.
Doctors behaving like politicians
And this is where the support provided by Australia’s most senior doctors, the Chief Medical Officer and his two deputies, is perplexing. Essentially, these three senior doctors have become mouthpieces for government propaganda and because of their mixed messaging, political speak and, in some cases, ignorance, it’s difficult to discern whether the public is receiving the correct public health advice, or politicised information based on the whims of the Prime Minister.
One of those deputy Chief Medical Officers, Dr Coatsworth, appeared on the ABC’s Q+A program this week, and was asked how schools could be considered safe for children when New Zealand’s largest coronavirus hotspot was at a school where 93 cases were recorded. Dr Coatsworth responded by stating he wasn’t fully aware of the circumstances, before quickly moving back to the contents of the NSW Health report.
It probably suited Dr Coatsworth’s argument to open schools to not be “aware of the circumstances” of the school incident in New Zealand but shouldn’t the community expect the second most senior Chief Medical Officer in Australia to be fully aware of what was happening in a neighbouring country? Absolutely. Feigning ignorance or not being aware of a school contracting 93 coronavirus cases shows that either this Medical Officer is not doing the work required to earn his rather large salary, or is just pushing the political messages of his political masters.
This is not the time to be glib or ignorant of the details: the health of four million school children and 250,000 school teachers across Australia is at risk. These are not small numbers, and it would be wise to follow the advice of Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, who recently suggested more research needs to be considered and comprehensively understood before schools can make the full return to normal operations.
After all, it’s the Premiers and Chief Ministers that will deal with the political fallout – and the overrun hospitals – if the coronavirus breaks out within school communities, not the Prime Minister. And, if there are outbreaks within school communities, who will hold responsibility?
The public can be assured it won’t be this federal government, which has a history and inclination to blame-shift and not take any responsibility for its actions (and inactions), as we have seen during the recent Ruby Princess incident, and the indifference shown during the bushfire crisis across Australia towards the end of 2019 and earlier this year.
Bribing the principals
The Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, has consistently pushed the message that schools are safe for students to return – even though when all evidence is taken into account, this is not the case – and has offered a $3 billion advance to independent and religious schools if they can achieve a 50 per cent student-return rate by 1 June, less than four weeks away.
And prime ministerial aspirant, Peter Dutton, ever so helpful and never too far away from the action, ramped up his belief the only reasons students are not returning to schools is because teachers’ unions have “their hands firmly around the throat” of state governments. Any imagery of gangster behaviour, thuggery and brutality is purely coincidental.
A better way to instil confidence in school principals about fully opening up schools would be to use comprehensive research and medical evidence as guidance, rather than gas-lighting the community with data from one very limited report from NSW Health, complaining about unions, or offering schools a massive bribe to overlook the health and wellbeing of their students and teachers.
The amount of active coronavirus cases in Australia, as of 1 May, is 929, and the amount of new infections recorded on this day was only 13. These are excellent results, but it has to be noted these are official recordings and there may be other groups or communities not being recorded in regional areas or parts of Australia where testing is limited, and there may be a wide range of carriers of COVID-19 who are asymptomatic.
And this is an area where the future risks may be hidden.
Opening up schools to their full capacities too early had the potential to expose the community to a second outbreak of the coronavirus – as has already occurred in Singapore and parts of China – and we’d be back to where we started several months ago: locked-down in isolation and an already-damaged economy exposed to even further damage.
In the early parts of the coronavirus crisis, the government put out messaging about the need to take ‘an abundance of caution,’ even if in practice, this hasn’t always been the case. Now is the time to practically take on that approach with schools, rather than acting irrationally and undoing all the work that has been made to get the country to this point.
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