COVID-19 DIARY -IT’S QUARANTIME!

The economic and social impact of Melbourne's second lockdown since the crisis began has been enormous.

September 04

Friday.

The European Union was urging member nations not to shorten quarantine periods as Germany made plans to follow Norway and the Netherlands in doing exactly that down to five days.

The head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) Andrea Ammon warned that at least 3-4 per cent of cases present themselves after the standard 14 day quarantine period. 

Ammon warned infection rates were on the rise in Europe with 46 cases per 100,000 people this last week. In March infections across the continent had been at 40 cases per 100,000 people and by the end of April they had reached 70 per 100,000 people. 

In Victoria there were 89 new COVID-19 cases and 59 deaths. 53 of them were newly reported but not from the previous day but from the previous few months and related to aged care facilities where there had been recent changes in reporting. 

Only earlier in the week Victoria Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton had reported a daily toll of 41 deaths most of them historical and advised a similar repeat was unlikely. It was the highest number of daily deaths reported in the country during the pandemic. 

The Australian death toll from COVID-19 now reached 737. 

650 of them from Victoria, the state that had suffered the most in the country.

“On a positive note, this is out of 25,000-odd tests processed yesterday, which represents about 0.3 per cent positivity,” Professor Sutton said.

The Premier was expected to announce a roadmap out of restrictions the coming Sunday.

We wouldn’t be happy opening up with 80 cases a day — we would need to have an ongoing downwards trajectory to be satisfied,” Professor Sutton advised.

Premier Daniel Andrews urged that rushing out of the lockdown was not a good idea.

I know there is commentary around in relation to many in the business community and I fully appreciate and understand the pain and the challenge those businesses are facing. What I would say is this is not a choice, this is not something that we are choosing to do. There is simply no alternative but to ease out of these restrictions in a safe and steady way,” Premier Andrews said.

The Treasurer Tim Pallas announced the moratorium on evictions in Victoria would be extended until 28MAR2021. Rental relief grants of $3,000 would be also be available until the same date. 

We have seen more people face housing and rental distress due to the coronavirus and the convergence of factors including their age and employment conditions. The one thing they shouldn’t have to feel is their home is at risk.” Mr Pallas said.

In some circles there was an ongoing discussion about how the virus really only killed people over 60 and in nursing homes. Perhaps in response to recent comments by a former Prime Minister of Australia who had only too recently risked his live to save others during the recent bushfires but had wondered what causes the greater loss of life, the economic disenfranchisement of so many or the virus.

Tony Abbott, wearing protective fire gear, stands with another firefighter. There is ash all over his uniform.

Professor Sutton said something in regards to this.

“I don’t know what people mean when they say ‘learn to live with this virus’. Of course we’ll learn to live with this virus, we’re all trying to learn to live with this virus,” he said.

“But if people mean let it run, let young people who are less at risk of severe illness go out and get infected, they are not thinking that these people in aged care are our parents, and our grandparents, are our aunts and uncles, are our great-grandparents. And are extremely vulnerable to dying from this virus.”

“But to see 20, 30, 35 deaths in an aged care facility — that is unprecedented. And it is entirely because coronavirus has a 15 per cent mortality rate for people above 85 years of age, it’s even higher the older that you get. So it’s a very significant illness,” Professor Sutton said.

-Lloyd Marken

COVID-19 DIARY – BORDER WARS – PART VI

Living on the edge: The Aussies left in no-man's land by border closures

August 28

With COVID-19 numbers down there was a renewed vested interest to see the Queensland borders open. Vested being the term.

The border closures were popular but public opinion can always be swayed by media buy in and Premier Anastacia Palazszuk was facing an upcoming state election.

As the danger receded and more and more people battled through debt and unemployment there would a change and politicians need to be two steps ahead of such things.

So Daniel Gschwind of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council advised “We need a road map that identifies triggers and indicators, which allows us a modicum of certainty. At the moment, there is no visibility and it’s taking its toll economically, it’s taking its toll on our state of mind. For our people.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland sent an open letter to all state Premiers and the Prime Minister the same week call for a national framework around future border closures. The CCIQ acknowledged border closures have been an important part of dealing with COVID-19 but asked for “a transparent and easily understood set of nationally consistent principles is urgently needed”.

The interesting thing is we had such shut down national borders and when there is an outbreak of a cluster we seek to shut down localities and suburbs and cities. Goods and people were still travelling across these “closed” borders too but state borders were becoming more and more a political issue.

It was a reality that border closures don’t ensure that people don’t cross interstate with the virus either but following people lying on their declarations, the policing of such people and stopping them at the border had proved much easier when borders were “closed”.

I can’t pretend the answers but Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeanette Young had proven prescient, cautious and dedicated to the safety of Queenslanders throughout the crisis. If she thought it was a good idea and the Premier was prepared to stand her ground I was of the opinion that they were doing something right. Quite frankly I was about sick of the hypocritical media coverage of it all.

But Premier Palasczsuk had chosen her words poorly.

The Premier had advised state hospitals were for “our people.” That was simply inaccurate and inept.

Days later a pregnant woman from northern New South Wales flew to Sydney and lost one of her twins in surgery rather than present in Queensland. 

When asked if she had regretted her earlier comment the Premier replied “No.”

Because these are really difficult decisions and … people deserve the best health care, and if they can get the health care, then that is good, if it is an emergency or if we have the expertise, of course we will do that. But we are living through a global pandemic at the moment.

You could understand if people observed wryly she was all heart.

A few things to warm your heart during COVID-19. 

August 31

Monday, the 31st of August and the World Health Organisation reported there had now been over 25 million cases of COVID-19. Globally there had now been 25,155,586 confirmed cases with a daily increase of 269,420. The number of dead 844,963 with a daily increase of 5,422.

In Australia there had been 25,670 confirmed cases with a daily increase of 123. There had been 611 deaths with a daily increase of eleven.

In Canada there had been 127,673 confirmed cases with a daily increase of 315. There had been 9,113 deaths with a daily increase of five.

In the United Kingdom there were 334,471 confirmed cases with a daily increase of 1,715. There had been 41,499 deaths with a daily increase of one.

In India there had been 3,621,245 confirmed cases with a daily increase of 78,512. There had been 64,469 deaths with a daily increase of 971.

In the United States of America there had been 5,899,504 confirmed cases with a daily increase of 43,983. There had been 181,689 deaths with a daily increase of 1,000.

Victoria recorded 73 new COVID-19 cases and 41 deaths. A record number of deaths recorded in one day but to be clear 33 were historical cases that could now be confirmed as due to COVID-19 and linked to aged care settings.

The previous daily high of deaths in Victoria was 25 on the 17th of August. 

Five hundred and sixty-five Victorians had died from COVID-19, about three quarters linked ot aged care settings.

Premier Daniel Andrews did announce that he provide a roadmap out of regional stage 3 lockdown and Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdowns which were scheduled to expire 13SEP2020.

There were 195 fines handed out in the state including to a woman who drove outside a 5km radius because as she advised there was no good coffee in her area. 

Seventy-three new daily cases were the lowest in a day since July. The number of active cases in the state dropped overnight from 2,830 to 2,620. 

Active rural cases dropped from 166 to 154. 

The number of health care workers with COVID–19 down from 406 to 378.

Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton urged Victorians to stay the course. 

The pain that is happening every day now, we are all fed up with it, absolutely fed up with it. But holding the course, even as we get down to these very low numbers, is absolutely critical to get that control that we can be confident that we will maintain,” he said.

New South Wales reported 10 new cases, 6 from hotel quarantine.

In Queensland there were 24 cases linked to the Wacol outbreak. Public places near where my parents and older sister lived continued to be listed in health alerts.

There were two new cases overnight in the state.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk commented there would be no changes to the borders for the month of September. 

There will be no changes for the month of September. Our Chief Health Officer Dr Young has made it very clear she doesn’t want to see community transmission, and there is community transmission at the moment in the southern states,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

A Victorian man who had tested positive some time ago in his home state but had been missing flew into Queensland and was caught by Queensland police. 

As a result of the cluster at the Youth Detention Centre, all prisoners across South-East Queensland were in stage 4 lockdown, confined to their cells. 

“It’s fundamental that we try to stop the spread of COVID in our prisons, that’s why these tough measures have had to be taken,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

In the past 24 hours there had been 7,489 tests carried out and there were 28 active cases in the state.

Twenty-eight active cases in Queensland and 2,620 in Victoria. All Queenslanders felt very lucky.

-Lloyd Marken

COVID-19 DIARY – WAS ANY OF IT NECESSARILY AVOIDABLE?

Police at the head of a long line of traffic on a highway

August 13

There continued to be mounting pressure for state border closures to end.

In Queensland Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk tweeted there were no new cases of COVID-19 in the state. In New South Wales there were 12 new cases and in Victoria there were 278 new cases and eight deaths.

“The danger is still on our doorstep,” Ms Palaszczuk posted. “As of this morning, New South Wales had 297 active cases after an additional 96 cases in the past week.

“Queensland isn’t taking any chances … our borders will remain closed for as long as the risk remains.”

Earlier in the week South Australia had made the decision to not have residents from border towns be able to enter the state.

South Australia’s Minister for Health and Wellbeing Stephen Wade defended the decision on ABC Breakfast.

“We have 500 cases in Victoria … We have 14 cases literally on the border,” he said.

“I see this as a bushfire that is producing spot fires in regional Victoria. We have a fire break in terms of border controls. We have no cases west of the border. Now is the time to act.”

“We are sympathetic to the disruption to people across Victoria and SA, in terms of these cross border restrictions. That is why we have left them as light as we could for as long as we could. Now that we have active cases right across the western border, we need to increase the restrictions. I find that (politically driven suggestion) offensive. These measures are fundamentally driven by our public health officers.”

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner and Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan were not ruling out border closures in place well into 2021 if active cases could not be brought down in other states.

Despite having entry through their own national borders from overseas restricted, Federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham advised, “State border restrictions need to be proportionate to the health risk and shouldn’t remain in place for one more day than they need to. If a state or territory border were to remain closed to a jurisdiction that had successfully suppressed the spread of COVID-19, then that state or territory government will need to be accountable to their tourism industry and will ultimately need to provide additional support.

As he put it, “With our international borders expected to remain closed for the foreseeable future, our priority right now is getting Australians travelling to parts where we have successfully suppressed the spread of COVID-19.

Border closures didn’t ensure that the disease wouldn’t be brought in by residents returning who didn’t play by the rules. There are no guarantees but this thing spreads and fast. We learnt that the hard way in March and closed down our national and state borders as a result. When there is an outbreak we shut down localities with travel.

Lately the media has been feeding us stories of people who couldn’t get to hospitals or funerals. All tragic and maybe unnecessary but to be frank I smell a rat and I’m not buying. There’s too many lives at stake to worry about the almighty dollar and I suspect that is what this is really all about.

If the Chief Health Officer of Queensland Jeanette Young wanted to keep the borders shut she had my full support as she seemed to have our best interests at heart and if the state Premier was not wilting under intense political pressure to open the borders well then she could count on my vote in the upcoming state election too.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison posted a video message on Facebook acknowledging the high number of COVID deaths in aged care, about 68% of national COVID deaths.

I want to assure you that where there are shortcomings in these areas they will be acknowledged, and the lessons will be learnt, and we will seek to be as upfront, particularly with the families of those who are affected in these circumstances as much as possible,” Morrison said.

The Prime Minister also acknowledged that there would be further death.

We know that in the days and the weeks ahead there will be more difficult news as the impact of the COVID-19 spread, particularly in Victoria, will have further impacts. We need to continue to brace ourselves for that.

The fact that he had lost his own father earlier in 2020 seemed pertinent when he said, “Losing a loved one is never easy. We’re also terribly sorry these are the conditions you have to go through in terrible grief.

There had been leaks showing the offer of defence personnel to the Victorian government for hotel quarantine manpower made the subsequent fiasco more embarassing for the Victoria Premier but Daniel Andrews stood firm saying, “I don’t know the federal Defence Minister. I don’t deal with her. I deal with the Prime Minister. I’m glad that there’s other people who think that the best contribution they could make is to be playing politics. I haven’t got time for that and I’m not interested in it.

It was reported that for the month of July, a million Australians had been out of work. The unemployment rate was 7.5 per cent but was effectively as high as 9.9 per cent accounting for the Jobkeeper retention.

The good news was that figure was done by 1.3 per cent from June where was 11.2 per cent. CommSec chief economist economist Craig James said, “Jobs rose more than expected. But we know that there is a long way to go, especially incorporation of the effects of both stage four and stage three lockdown restrictions in Victoria. The quicker that the jobless rate peaks and starts falling, the less damage and scarring will be done to the longer-term health of the economy.” 

In New Zealand there were 13 active new COVID-19 cases bringing the number of total active cases to 36. Having been 100 days COVID free the government was considering how long and how far they would go with lockdown and if it had come through freight which it was indicated was a very low likelihood. When asked if the government was going hard enough with quarantining people the Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield advised “I don’t think we have been soft on this at all. We don’t round up people in New Zealand. We round up sheep; we don’t round up people.

August 14

Friday.

In Victoria there were 372 new cases and 14 deaths up from 287 cases and eight deaths the day before. The Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton advised these large numbers may well be the peak of what was occurring in the state. The death of a young man in his 20s from that days’ account became the youngest death in Australia during the pandemic so far. 

In Queensland thousands of people were still travelling to the state. 2,600 people on 65 flights on Thursday. Five were refused entry and 142 were quarantined. 

4,575 cars were stopped at the border, 253 were turned around and 54 were ordered to self-isolate. 

As the Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll put it, “There’s an extraordinary amount of people still coming into Queensland.

In Victoria there were 372 new cases and 14 deaths up from 287 cases and eight deaths the day before. The Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton advised these large numbers may well be the peak of what was occurring in the state. The death of a young man in his 20s from that days’ account became the youngest death in Australia during the pandemic so far. 

In Victoria there were 1,743 Australian Defence Force personnel deployed, more than any other state and territory combined. Their lack of previous utilisation in such large numbers had been a political football throughout the week.

During a parliamentary inquiry into the hotel quarantine outbreaks in Melbourne, Premier Daniel Andrews had made it a point that ADF troops were not on offer but this kicked off a back and forth all week. 

An outbreak at Rydges was part of the beginning of Victoria’s second wave. It was being investigated how the outbreak had occurred and whether the procurment and choice of particular private security firms had been poor and led to the outbreak happening. Private firms which can range in training and experience had been used in other states but ADF members had been used quite a bit a in NSW along with private security and no similar outbreak had occurred there. w

The mandatory hotel quarantine began Saturday, March 28. 100 personnel were put on standby for large states and 50 ADF personnel for small states. None were deployed to Victoria, such decisions were left to the individual states. Commissioner Crisp made this determination.

In April further communication with the ADF did not bring up using them for hotel quarantine as far as the state authorities were concerned as they already had a program in place. Albeit one that would prove disastrous. 

Defence Minister Senator Reynolds had a different story advising on the 12th of April that Victorian authorities were asked if they needed any assistance and reaffirmed they did not. A small distinction but perhaps an important one.

While Victoria did not use the ADF in this role it should be noted it was small numbers in other states. In March in New South Wales 30 ADF went to Sydney airport and another 40 to six hotels to support quarantine with police and security.

In Queensland it was a dozen ADF to Brisbane and Cairns airports and another dozen to a hotel in Cairns. 

Fifty went to Western Australia but in late July whistleblowers brought attention to quarantine breaches and the next day more ADF troops deployed to the West to assist contracted security guards. 

Rumours have swirled of Melbourne security guards and quarantine guests making the beast with the two backs but so far nothing has been substantiated. Confirmed and scary in itself is the subcontracting out to casual employees with Whatsapp and the providing of very little training at all. There has also been talk of errors that could have been avoided, carpooling, the sharing of a lighter, eating on breaks at the same place. 

On the 24th of June, Victoria a month after the case at Rydges, the ADF was requested by Victoria and the numbers were subsequently scaled back. 

On the 30th of June Victoria was out of the hotel quarantine business with flights diverted to other cities until at least October. With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in Victoria more and more ADF troops have been brought to patrol streets with police and conduct doorknocks. 

The failure of the hotel quarantine has seen some circles regularly calling for Premier Andrews resignation but I’m not so sure. The whole second wave and resulting deaths in aged care could be linked back to a failure to better plan the hotel quarantine and the vendors. On the other hand was some of this the poor decision making through the fog of war. Andrews failed here but he has worked hard as the state went into higher lockdown under immense pressure from all many sides. 

Either way, in his own words, “Clearly there has been a failure in the operation of this program,” he said at the time.

On November 6, the Coate Inquiry is expected to be handed down with their findings on the matter.

-Lloyd Marken