“But once people got comfortable with that… we lessened our vigilance about what still had to happen and we watched with almost incredulity the level of activity happening in the countries nearest to us — as if that was just something Asia does or that those cultures do, but in fact they were following through day by day, hour by hour,” she said.
The problem, Ms Mostyn said, was that the government had not created a “single source of truth”: a person or group who could deliver consistent, tough information and instructions as NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons did during the summer fire crisis.
Politicians, Ms Mostyn said, tended to “smooth” messages too much.
One exchange, amidst some broad agreement that experiments in “herd immunity” were a “reckless” idea based on untested assumptions and that workers who lost shifts needed more assistance quickly, highlighted the debate.
Mr Bowtell asked Liberal Senator Richard Colbeck, who is minister for aged care within the health portfolio, how many coronavirus testing kits Australia had and which regions were without them.
Senator Colbeck explained he didn’t have that data with him, and said the more important message was that only those who fit the symptom and contact criteria should see their doctor for a test. There were too many “worried well” getting tested, Senator Colbeck said, which was straining limited resources.
Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, a GP and former president of the Australian Medical Association, made the same point, saying how many people he had not tested was a better question than how many people he had.
Mr Bowtell’s point was that greater government transparency could help puncture mistruths and poorly placed fear while making the community appropriately alarmed about the coronavirus. On the other hand, Senator Colbeck’s implied argument was that some pieces of raw information are of little help to anyone but armchair experts.
Just which pieces of information fit into which category is unclear. And that, Ms Mostyn would argue, is a question for a Commissioner Fitzsimmons type.
It was a debate that suggested the chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, has not quite attained the same level of trust as his counterpart in the RFS.
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.