Coronavirus Government Global Briefing: May 14

By Chris Woods

May 14, 2020

Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

When “red tape” actually is red tape

During crises like COVID-19, it’s understandable to see bids to slash elements of bureaucracy that, one way or another, were designed for longer, calmer periods of deliberation; see, for example, any of the emergency powers rushed through across state and federal governments, or NSW’s new legislation aimed at slashing “red tape” in a bid to boost infrastructure spending.

And while the term “red tape” is equally applied against politically-inconvenient regulations — see how many times the phrase “green tape” has ever been invoked by environmentalists — American lawyer and advocate for simplifying governments Philip K. Howard has argued in a new City Journal essay against legitimate examples of “structural paralysis” during America’s responses to the crisis.

Specifically, regulations at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) hampered University of Washington virologist Alex Greninger development of a COVID-19 test by well over a month.

After spending 100 hours filling out an application for an FDA “emergency-use authorisation” (EUA) to deploy his test in-house in January, Greninger submitted his application by email:

“Then he was told that the application was not complete until he mailed a hard copy to the FDA Document Control Center. After a few more days, FDA officials told Greninger that they would not approve his EUA until he verified that his test did not cross-react with other viruses in his lab, and until he agreed also to test for MERS and SARS. The CDC then refused to release samples of SARS to Greninger because it’s too virulent. Greninger finally got samples of other viruses that satisfied the FDA. By the time they arrived, and his tests began, in early March, the outbreak was well on its way.”

As Mandarin Premium covered back in March, the CDC also decided to ignore WHO guidelines for developing a test and instead went it alone; that their original version turned out to be inaccurate cost the country weeks’ of testing capacity.

Secondly, Howard cites New York Times’ columnist Bret Stephens’ article ‘COVID-19 and the Big Government Problem‘, on how federal-state regulations and a means-tested emergency lunch program meant delayed meals for children from low-income households.

While the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, former Obama administration official Katie Wilson, had secured an in-principle agreement to transfer federal meal funding to a holiday-period program, the move required waivers from both state and federal governments, and school districts in Oregon were required to develop a plan to target the “most-needy students”.

To be clear, Howard is not proposing deregulation — “the free market won’t protect us against pandemics” — but for a simpler framework with a greater emphasis on empowering local authorities. Paralysis of the public sector, he argues, led directly to polarised politics filled with people “promising to fix it”.

“The failure of modern government is not merely a matter of degree — of ‘too much red tape.’ Its failure is inherent in the premise of trying to create an automatic framework that is superior to human choice and judgment. We thought we could input the facts and, as Czech playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel once parodied it, ‘a computer . . . will spit out a universal solution’.”

Curiously, one of Australia’s major scandals — the outbreak aboard the Ruby Princess and lack of testing/quarantine for passengers — emerged in part because of inadequate regulation and a self-reporting regime. Which, to invoke Howard’s solution, sounds a lot like “a framework that empowers people again to take responsibility”.

New Zealand revs up on road to recovery

Ahead of moving to Level 2 restrictions today, the New Zealand government has moved out of the state of emergency — extended six times since being issues on 25 March — and moved into a ‘national transition period‘.

As civil defence minister Peeni Henare announced yesterday, this period is designed to support a nationally consistent and coordinated approach to civil defence emergency management activities, including:

  • providing for the conservation and supply of food, fuel and other essential supplies; and
  • directing people to stop any activity that may cause, or substantially contribute to the consequences of, the spread of COVID-19.

The government also passed legislation covering the Level 2 period — meaning police can still exercise powers during the transition period — as well as temporary visa powers.

Finally, the government announced two fresh initiatives: amendments to the Overseas Investment Act to protect key domestic assets from “falling unnecessarily into foreign ownership” amidst the global recession; and changes to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement designed to mitigate the disruption to schools.

Geopolitics wrap

  • According to Reuters, US Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Ilham Omar and over 300 lawmakers from across the world have urged the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to cancel the debt of the poorest countries and boost funding to avert a global economic meltdown.
    • Sanders and US Representative Nydia Velazquez have also introduced legislation seeking to extend financial support to Puerto Rico.
  • NBCNews reports that Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has been hospitalised after testing positive; as ABC reports, the news comes as Russia begins to ease lockdowns even as the country overtakes Italy in total cases.
  • France24 reports that Paris police have banned alcohol along the Seine as crowds embrace their new-found freedom.
  • As Science reports, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has found that, according to analysis of more than 1300 Facebook pages with nearly 100 million followers, anti-vaccine pages have fewer followers than pro-vaccine pages but are more numerous, faster growing, and increasingly more connected to undecided pages.
  • Finally, WHO officials have hit out at the “false dichotomy” of pitting health and economic success against each other, while warning that reopening too quickly would “create a second economic shock”.

On the home front: Queensland’s pitch for Virgin Australia

Last night, Queensland’s newly-appointed treasurer Cameron Dick announced that the state-owned Queensland Investment Corporation (QIC) will make an official bid for a stake in Virgin Australia.

As the ABC reports, the bid is designed to both retain the company’s headquarters in Brisbane and grow jobs throughout the recession, and could take the form of a direct equity stake, a loan, a guarantee or other financial incentives.

“We have an opportunity to retain not only head office and crew staff in Queensland, but also to grow jobs in the repairs, maintenance and overhaul sector and support both direct and indirect jobs in our tourism sector.

“We saw the punishing increase to the cost of flights after the Ansett collapse, and this government will not stand by and let that happen again.”

Dick noted that administrators Deloitte are looking to conclude the sale by June 2020.

While the announcement received an unsurprisingly negative response from home affairs minister Peter Dutton, assistant minister for superannuation Jane Hume said the bid could be part of a “viable option” to maintain at least two airlines in Australia.

The move has also been welcomed by Queensland’s sole Greens MP Michael Berkman, who, since Virgin went into administration, has been arguing for public ownership of the airline. Berkman has also called for the state government to use “any revenue to build up domestic train travel to protect tourism and cut pollution long term.”

FURTHER READING: For a glimpse of what air-travel might actually look like once the global pandemic subsides, check out The Atlantic’s James Fallows ‘Air Travel Is Going to Be Very Bad, for a Very Long Time‘. The piece, which includes both Fallows’ opinions and aviation experts, suggest the trends of air travel becoming cheaper and more accessible might reverse while hygiene and social-distancing requirements “are likely to match the ‘security theatre’ since the 9/11 attacks”.

Western Australia and Victoria pledge tourism funds

In other tourism news, Western Australia has announced a $10.4 million Tourism Recovery Fund.

As businesses prepare for some regional travel and other restrictions to be eased from Monday May 18, the fund will include two separate programs:

  • $10.4 million in one-off, $6,500 grants for up to 1,600 individual small businesses, including micro tourism businesses such as sole traders and businesses with four or less employees, with annual taxable wages of less than $1 million, including accommodation, attraction, tour and transport businesses.
  • A $4 million Tourism Business Survival Grants package for tourism operators dealing with exceptionally difficult circumstances, with grants of $25,000-$100,000 available. Eligible businesses may be located in parts of the state, with more restrictive travel bans in place, otherwise face a more difficult road to recovery, or deliver “iconic experiences”; a probity auditor would review the robust and transparent criteria-led application and panel assessment.

As part of the application process, businesses are required to submit a recovery and marketing plan to outline how the funding will be used and indicate how their product, service or experience could be adapted. Businesses must have a valid Australian business number and be an active part of the WA tourism industry through membership of one of the state’s eligible tourism organisations, or tourism accreditation programs.

Similarly, Victoria announced a $150 million experience economy survival package to support sporting clubs and competitions — “from grassroots to elite” — as well as major tourist attractions, galleries and museums, and the racing industry.

The package includes:

  • $40 million for community sport and recreation bodies, including state sporting associations, leagues and clubs – to help them return strongly after the pandemic;
  • $16 million for national sporting organisations;
  • $5.3 million to support the State Sport Centres Trust and the Kardinia Park Stadium Trust;
  • $44 million in the state’s racing industry;
  • more than $32 million to support creative agencies and initiatives, including funding for the Geelong Arts Centre, Museums Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Arts Centre Melbourne and Melbourne Recital Centre
    • This will also provide $6 million for live music industry workers and to bolster the “oversubscribed” Sustaining Creative Workers initiative; and
  • $11 million for Victoria’s tourism industry, with funding for the Emerald Tourist Railway Board (Puffing Billy) and other not-for-profit and privately-owned visitor attractions, plus regional tourism boards and the Victorian Tourism Industry Council.

As the government notes, the creative industry funds follow $16.8 million in previously-announced initiatives, bringing total funds to the sector to more than $49 million.

Finally, The Examiner reports that the University of Tasmania has announced free business and tourism graduate certificate courses under a new partnership with the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania and state government.

State wrap

  • As the ABC reports, the NSW government has announced that, under restrictions easing on Friday, the state will allow pubs and clubs to reopen attached restaurants and cafes; they will, however, have to stick to the 10 patrons or less rule.
    • The state has also announced that more than 1500 nurses have undertaken ICU refresher training as part of a $3 million scheme.
  • The ACT, which will create similar “10 or less” rules on Friday, has announced that playgrounds and parks will be reopened from midnight while limited library services will be available from Monday 18 May.
  • Victoria outlined a $3.7 million energy counselling package, designed to fund new financial counsellors and online training for more than 1,100 frontline community workers to provide immediate electricity and gas management support.
  • Tasmania has announced that trials for all three racing codes, along with new operating procedures, will resume from Monday 18 May.
  • Finally, the Queensland government announced that outback pubs and clubs will receive more than 3,000 litres’ worth of free XXXX GOLD ahead of reopening this weekend. If I could put journalistic impartiality aside for just one second: QUEENSLANDER.

For health department updates: Federal, NSW, Victoria, QueenslandACTSouth AustraliaTasmaniaNorthern Territory and Western Australia.

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