Politicians must heed their health experts

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Since the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts have repeatedly cautioned government authorities about the inherent dangers in allowing the virus to rip through the community.

The fear that public hospitals, aged care homes, doctors and ancillary healthcare networks could become overwhelmed with sick people, and the obvious dysfunction and tragedy that would present, is why we had lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.

It is why there was a degree of urgency getting vaccinations into people’s arms. It is why we have been urged to wear masks and to keep proper distances between each other. It is why Australians have endured so much personal pain and pandemic anxiety, and why there has been damage to the nation’s economy.

All the warnings were there two years ago. Yet federal and state governments have miscalculated the widespread impact of mass illness. They have failed to properly prepare the nation’s frontline health infrastructure as the inevitable happened and cases soared.

Now the hospital systems in the nation’s two biggest states are close to breaking point.

In recent weeks, ambulance services in both NSW and Victoria have faced critical delays in attending urgent cases. Triaging the huge volume of people who are fronting up to emergency departments – many of whom have COVID-19 but do not actually need admission – has forced curbs to the care normally expected for everyone else.

The hospitals simply do not have the medical staff to provide the first-class, unfaltering care that Australians have come to expect and which has elevated this nation’s health system to world renown. Staff are exhausted and demoralised, and the strains are likely to continue at least for some weeks.

All this is because federal and state governments – sometimes in opposition to the health advice offered by their leading health officers – have adopted strategies that all but guarantee the virus will become endemic.

They eased social restrictions, lifted lockdowns as vaccination rates topped 90 per cent, opened interstate borders and more.

Perhaps the path to “endemic” was deliberate, a decision taken behind closed doors and never properly explained. Community patience, and confidence in the ability of authorities to properly manage pandemic risks, had waned.

Nevertheless, the number of active COVID-19 cases has soared along the east coast in recent weeks, especially in NSW and Victoria. And sure enough, the states’ hospital systems and aged care homes have come under severe pressure.

Government and medical authorities knew before Christmas that the Omicron variant would result in mass transmission throughout the community. Yet they dismissed calls from some medical experts for social restrictions to be reimposed or at least tightened.

Back then, Prime Minister Scott Morrison talked about Australians needing to take “personal responsibility” to minimise risks and baulked at the notion that governments would reimpose mandates. He spoke about “common-sense behaviours” and even reduced the wearing of facial masks to a kind of option – akin to slapping on sunscreen.

Now Mr Morrison concedes that the hospital system is under “significant strain” but argues against increasing social restrictions because, in his view, that takes people out of the workforce and, in turn, that would cause disruption to the already-disrupted supply chains for consumer goods and services.

What state and federal governments need to do is heed the advice of their chief health/medical officers and make decisions on that basis, not decisions based on politics or trying to put the economy first. The human cost, and even the economic one, is otherwise too great.

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