National cabinet kicks more tins down the road

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

At a time when COVID deaths are still unacceptably high, there are fears next week's return to school will turbocharge the spread of the virus, the take-up of vital booster shots is lagging badly, and retailers say it is becoming harder and harder to staff supermarkets, the national cabinet has kicked the cans down the road one more time.

This is consistent with the disappointing failures of leadership at the national, state and territory level that have been evident since before the start of the summer break.

Unlike the great and the good, who wanted the government out of people's lives and said it was up to individuals to take responsibility for their own pandemic management at the start of December, the coronavirus - especially the Omicron variant - didn't take a Christmas break.

Almost one-third of the Australians who have died of or with the virus since the first case was reported on Australia Day 2020 have done so since late November.

On Thursday, using the usual excuse of "we're waiting for the medical advice", national cabinet chose not to respond swiftly to calls for the definition of "fully vaccinated" to be upgraded to include the booster shot.

This was despite a strong push from the Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, and an impassioned plea by the NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard for people to get their third jab.

Mr Andrews, who noted that just over one-third of Victorians had had their booster, said the third shot would be critical in protecting people against Omicron and "whatever variant is coming down the track".

"This is not a two-dose thing, of two doses and a bonus," he said. "I think it will very soon be three doses to get the green tick? Who knows what comes after that?"

Brad Hazzard wasn't mincing his words either; saying the number of people getting booster shots just wasn't good enough.

"The numbers of boosters are not where we need them to be to keep people safe," Mr Hazzard said. "In the Royal North Shore Hospital there are seven people in ICU, and not one of them has had a booster."

He decried the fact appointments at vaccination clinics were going begging because people didn't think they needed a booster after being repeatedly told Omicron was "milder".

Given governments across the eastern part of the continent were happy to relax mask mandates and density limits against the prevailing medical advice last month, it is hard to comprehend why they won't take what appears to be the very simple and straightforward step of mandating boosters until every possible regulator known to human kind has signed off on the idea.

The same is true for the vexed question of extending the definition of "essential workers" to include retail. While lived experience suggests that in some instances claims of shortages may have been exaggerated, it is becoming harder to staff shops and distribution centres as more people are "furloughed" as a result of being declared close contacts.

It would make sense to include vital retail staff under the "essential worker" banner, so long as workers were made aware that, in line with the Australian Health Protection Principal Advisory Committee advice, they could not be compelled to come into work against their will, and that they did not have to provide or pay for their own rapid antigen tests.

The Prime Minister has, on numerous recent occasions, been accused of refusing to address problems until they become full-blown crises.

The recent reluctance of the national cabinet to work together to take the hard decisions would suggest he is not the only leader with this particular problem.

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This story National cabinet kicks more tins down the road first appeared on The Canberra Times.