Dear Victorian Government: What was your bit again?

So, esteemed members of the Victorian Government: We’ve done our bit, have you done yours?

We’ve locked down and stayed inside. We’ve kept kids at home and stayed away from elderly parents. We haven’t travelled. We haven’t gone to work. We’ve shopped twice a day and exercised once.

We’ve largely done it in good spirits and in the firm understanding that this public health response has been crucial to getting community spread of this virus under control.

Yes, there have been the idiots and the selfish and the mask-refusers and the high-profile whingers who haven’t. But the enthusiastic kids with their wooden spoon villages, and the chefs with their cross-city food deliveries and the posties and the at-home teachers and our amazing neighbours have by far outnumbered them.

If you’ve been here, you’ve seen this community spirit and know how hard this has been. If you’re not here, I think you know it, too.

This very hard lockdown has been our bit, we the people’s bit, to try to suppress COVID-19 to manageable levels. And for more than five months we have done it. Plummeting numbers prove our work.

A blue mask with a red heart and 'MELB' printed on it is attached to a tree on the side of the footpath at Southbank, Melbourne.

Victorians have pulled together and largely done lockdown in good spirits.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

But then there’s the government’s bit: to fix their systems, to ensure the protection of high-risk settings, and to improve testing, contact tracing and isolating so that when we are let out and the virus starts inevitably circulating again, authorities can manage it.

So we’ve done our lot: Premier, have you done yours?

They’ve certainly tried, and there have been massive improvements in systems that this pandemic showed were not nearly good enough.

The Federal Government’s well-exposed and fatal failings in protecting aged care settings need to be noted here as well.

But as we hopefully await good news of relaxed restrictions on Sunday morning, we anxiously turn Daniel Andrews’s famous question back to him: Premier, are we right to go?

Because “right to go” will mean that the systems are now so well designed that they can cope with a cluster here and a super-spreader there without the dread prospect of only lockdown to manage it.

The question I’m desperate to have answered

The tale of the hapless Chadstone truck-driving super-spreader is instructive.

His transgressions of eating in a regional cafe when he shouldn’t have and then failing to tell tracers that he stopped in Shepparton as well have been understandably denounced by a public that’s sacrificed so much to live by the rules. He was supposed to do his bit — and he didn’t really.

But who else has responsibility here? How about DHHS tracers, who only connected with the contacts of the original infection two days after the first positive test (and two days after the Chadstone shop management took it upon themselves to contact all staff)?

If DHHS had got there faster and isolated close contacts then it’s likely the truck driver, the father of a close contact, would have isolated, too. And if they’d already brought in their new policy of isolation of tertiary contacts, there’s no way he would have been out driving at all.

Two medical workers in PPE test two drivers for COVD-19.

Infection protocols in high risk areas like aged care, hospitals and meatworks were never strong enough.(ABC News)

There will always be people who don’t do the right thing. A public health response has to be built to take account of that.

This lapse comes fully seven months after we started doing tracing in earnest. It has taken Victoria a very long time, too long for many, to elevate our test/trace/isolate protocols to the level the community has every right to expect them to be.

Why? That’s the question I am desperate to have answered, because I know that a department like DHHS is staffed by people of goodwill, who see public service as a vocation; who want to do their bit to see us through this pandemic; who take their job seriously.

So why have such people not been able to do the job they are there to do as quickly and efficiently as possible?

That’s the better inquiry — not one into who stuffed hotel quarantine, because that answer is obvious: they all did. I simply don’t care who came up with the rushed idea of using security guards; the whole of Government, with the Premier at the top, wears the outcome of that.

But how departments are funded, re-structured and staffed; what health priorities are set and planned for; whether people within are able to make things happen or are hampered by layers of management; whether there is a culture of speaking truth to power or not — well, now you’ve got my attention.

That’s the stuff that has a real effect on managing a pandemic, on people’s lives.

Tomorrow we learn our fate

There were a few mic-drop moments at the inquiry into the failings of the hotel quarantine system to explain some of the reasons. But none louder than this.

When the retired judge heading the inquiry, Jennifer Coate, heard testimony about the number of people employed at DHHS in public health infection control, she leaned into her microphone: “So just to be really clear about this,” she asked, “as at 27 March this year the Victorian Department of Health had one person fulfilling the role of infection prevention and control, one full-time position?”

“Yes,” replied the deputy chief health officer.

You can support the public health response all you like, you can do all the right things, but when this is the situation inside your health department two months after we all knew a pandemic was coming, well — dear Government, what was your bit again?

Infection protocols in high-risk areas like aged care, hospitals and meatworks were never strong enough. Frontline health care workers, surgeons, GPs, public health researchers warned and are still warning about this. They need to be listened to.

Tomorrow we learn our fate as many of us yearn not only for a bit of freedom but the reasonable assurances that the Government has done all it should to make re-opening possible. Mr Andrews, over to you.

While you wait for the most-watched TV show in town, you can read a little of what these front-line health care workers go through every day in their battle with this infection: live with them inside their constricting PPE for a while.

And if you know someone on Tinder, get them to read Four Corners and triple j Hack’s brilliant investigation into how sexual predators are thriving online.

Have a safe and happy weekend — enjoy an all-feline preliminary AFL final between the Lions and the Cats in Brisbane Saturday night and a Super Netball grand final the day after between the Vixens and the Fever.

Oh, and keep your fingers crossed for a happy Sunday morning for all us Victorians. This is what I’ll be playing ’til we get there.


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