Former Department of Health secretary Jane Halton and strategic health policy adviser Bill Bowtell have cited a lack of preparedness and a failure to learn from past events as reasons behind Australia’s fall from grace in the COVID-19 response.
Speaking to The Mandarin’s Melissa Coade on Mandarin Talks on Thursday, the health policy experts agreed that Australia’s initial pandemic response was successful, but fell short in the ‘second half of the game’ — as Halton put it.
Bowtell noted that a ‘great decision’ was made in March 2020, when state and territory governments took control of health policy matters. After that — with the exception of Melbourne — the COVID-19 situation across the country improved. Australia then experienced a ‘long summer’ from October 2020 to June 2021.
“But, what we didn’t know in that period really, or didn’t quite understand, was that we were in a race against the mutation of the virus. Delta started coming, and the race was really between vaccination and mutation,” Bowtell said.
By the time the virus began to mutate, Australia wasn’t in the position to undertake mass vaccination — unlike many other countries — and had not moved away from the hotel quarantine system.
Some of the errors that were made came down to a lack of preparedness.
Halton, who currently chairs the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, explained Australia’s interaction with preparedness as a ‘cycle of panic and neglect’.
“Sadly, I think in the recent past, we’ve had a little bit more neglect than we’ve had necessary panic. I mean, I’ve always said a bit of fear is actually quite functional. You need to be a bit worried in order to take the steps that actually position you well,” she said.
“The world did not do what it should have done after SARS and MERS which were warning signs of what could happen here.”
Halton noted that humans are bad at assessing their personal risk, and used the hesitancy around getting the AstraZeneca jab as an example. She noted that the ‘prospect that something bad will happen to you from that vaccine is infinitesimally smaller’ than the prospect that something bad will happen to you from COVID-19, if you’re in a hotspot.
Because of this poor risk assessment, the former secretary said, there has been an absence of investment in protections during ‘inter-pandemic periods’. And, while Australia had ‘some things in the kit bag’ prior to the pandemic — including plans and the medical stockpile — it did not undertake the practice needed to prepare for COVID-19.
The lesson that Australia must learn from COVID-19?
“Please, never again.”
There must be global investments in vaccine development to prepare for ‘all the potential pathogens that could do this to us again’, which, Halton has argued, will come sooner than we think. Domestically, Australia must also put in place plans and arrangements for things that, despite being unlikely, could have a ‘potentially catastrophic’ impact.
Bowtell, who was an architect of Australia’s world-renowned response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS, noted that the purpose of the public service is to plan for what might happen years into the future. He has argued that Australians are now ‘paying a big price’ for the ‘attacks’ on the public service, and believes the lessons learned during the HIV/AIDS epidemic should have been applied in the decades that followed.
“Way back to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80s, we had a very strong set of public service arrangements in Australia then, and it was tremendously useful in the Department of Health and all the other departments that we had this great resource to fall back on. And we learned a lot of hard lessons about what to do,” he said.
“But in recent years, that’s been stripped away. And of course the public service has suffered under those depredations, not just from one party but at state and federal levels.”
The notion that the government can hire a consulting firm at short notice to perform the job of the public service is ‘not borne out by the facts’, Bowtell noted.
“If we don’t have that medium-term horizon and the ability to think ahead and to talk to people around the world about what might be coming and how to strengthen it, then, as we can see, we pay a very high price,” he said.
“And I think one of the things we’ve got to take out of this is how we rebuild that structure and those capacities.”