Scott Morrison on Wednesday once again ruled out any consideration of moving to an “elimination” strategy for dealing with COVID-19.
He told Triple M Melbourne: “You don’t just shut the whole country down because that is not sustainable.
"There’d be doubling unemployment, potentially, and even worse.
"The cure would be worse than what arguably wouldn’t be delivered anyway, because as we’ve seen with the outbreak in Victoria, it came from a breach of quarantine.
"So unless we’re going to, you know, not allow any freight or any medical supplies into Australia or not allow any exports or anything like this, there is always going to be a connection between Australia and the rest of the world.”
Morrison’s sentiments were backed by the business lobbies. Innes Willox, head of the Australian Industry Group, praised the prime minister for “calling out the prohibitive costs” of an elimination strategy.
This would mean closing ourselves off from the rest of the world “indefinitely” and require “draconian restrictions” on citizens and businesses, Willox said.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, commenting on the NSW outbreak, also eschewed an elimination strategy.
Even if they are all correct in rejecting elimination, they haven’t properly addressed the arguments, or produced enough evidence to back their assertions.
Instead the government at least – excuse the pun – has sought to suppress the debate about elimination.
Morrison said there would be a “doubling” of unemployment, or worse. Could we have the figures underpinning this please?
At present, in all states and territories apart from Victoria and NSW the virus is effectively or nearly eliminated. So what would happen to unemployment in those states? Maybe a small tick up but you wouldn’t think a lot.
Victoria is once again shut down – triggering more unemployment under the current suppression strategy.
Presumably the treasury could produce some numbers to shed light on the prime minister’s claim.
Morrison’s statement that an elimination strategy would not allow any freight or medical supplies into Australia nor “allow any exports” smacks of exaggeration (at the least). Maximum care would be needed but border issues regarding crews are being managed now.
Willox says elimination would mean closing ourselves off to the rest of the world “indefinitely”.
The first point to be made is that, in terms of the movement of people, we are already closed internationally, apart from those coming home or foreigners leaving. This closure has no end date.
Secondly, after elimination presumably the border could eventually be open to a greater or lesser extent, with a very strict quarantine system.
Morrison’s claim that pursuing elimination would mean shutting down the whole country seems hyperbolic, when we already have extensive elimination. Apart from that, where shutdowns may be needed there can be a trade off – you can have a less severe shutdown but keep some restrictions for longer.
Admiitedly, if elimination were successful there would be the danger of complacancy, but we’ve seen this under suppression.
Elimination doesn’t mean there will never be cases. It means they are few enough for potential community transmission to be quickly dealt with.
Health experts are divided over whether elimination would be worth pursuing. Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said on Wednesday: “I’d love elimination. We’re not at a point where it’s the right time to make a detailed consideration of its feasibility, but … it’s worthy of consideration. There’s no question that it’s got its own challenges, but it’s got its benefits as well.”
Nick Talley, editor-in-chief of the Medical Journal of Australia, a physician and an epidemiologist, believes elimination would be the best strategy for both the society and the economy.
“We eliminated the virus - almost by accident - in large parts of the country during the last lockdown. I suspect this was in part because most of the cases were from international travellers who could be traced and isolated - there was limited community transmission.
"This is very different from the current outbreak in Victoria, and possibly NSW, because there is extensive community transmission,” Talley says.
“I’m not convinced the suppression strategy is going to work. If we don’t eliminate the virus the economy won’t be able to fire up across the country.”
The multiple federal medical officers have backed suppression. Aware of the government’s firm view, they do not freelance.
Both Morrison and Berejiklian have condemned in principle having a stop-start situation. But neither is saying Victoria should have stayed open through its current second wave.
While Morrison and business point to the potential costs of elimination, are they talking short term or long term costs?
For example, New Zealand’s elimination policy is projected to impose a greater economic hit than expected in Australia. But the difference might be somewhat lessened by the second Victorian shutdown, and narrowed further if there are future stop-starts.
It may be that elimination is not the way to go. But why not, say, have a short sharp inquiry, to gather evidence on the health and economic implications, so we know more about the options?
Of course we know why not. The government does not want its course seriously contested.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra