This does not mean the shutdowns are failing. In fact, the consensus from the experts is that the first ones have worked well and the later ones will have an impact on case numbers over the next 10 days or so.
It means confidence in the combined government response to the pandemic has never been more important. What is the endgame? Is it herd immunity, eradication or a long hibernation until the vaccine comes? What is the strategy to get there?
Confidence is easy to claim but hard to achieve when only 30 per cent of the community trusts the federal government “to do the right thing for the Australian people” – a finding in the annual Scanlon Foundation social cohesion report last November. So our political leaders will have to change the way they are managing this crisis. We will need more transparency and better governance to get through the long months ahead.
The great boost to confidence this week was the $130 billion wage subsidy from Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg. The assistance is broad and the design is simple. No scheme will be perfect in an emergency but employers and unions are backing this one.
As someone on the Labor side of politics put it: “It’s a gutsy call.” This was said with admiration and an f-bomb. The package shows the Prime Minister and Treasurer are going as far as possible to save jobs.
Morrison’s message about the “hibernation” of business is a reassuring concept (more than a fixed economic theory) that tells Australians there will be a thaw that allows them to restart. Many Australians will need that promise of Spring to get them through anxious times filled with worry about their health, their jobs and their families.
Another boost to confidence came on Thursday when Morrison promised free childcare for workers who can stay in their jobs through the slump. More help is due on Friday for renters and landlords.
But what of confidence in the strategy to end the pandemic that has caused this economic havoc? The fundamental dynamic, as Morrison says, is that the health and economic objectives work against each other. The tougher the action to protect health, the greater the damage to the economy.
But there is another truth. Any action to protect the economy means nothing if governments fail on health.
The astonishing blunder with the Ruby Princess – its passengers disembarked in Sydney only two weeks ago – is a reminder that everything depends on the decisions on health. Would the shutdowns be different if we did not have 400 coronavirus cases from that ship?
Ministers, officials and the cruise company executives have to be held accountable for that failure, but that cannot happen if parliaments are suspended for months.
Blakely thinks the current health measures are doing more than flattening the curve to slow the spread of the virus. He says they are “squashing the curve”.
But he cannot be sure of the final objective. While he believes it is too late for Australia to eradicate the virus, he says “herd immunity” remains a possible outcome – that is, the infection reaches 60 per cent of the population and the country becomes resistant to its spread.
The alternative? “Australia could continue squashing the curve for months and months till sometime in 2021, with a muted epidemic or two along the way, until a vaccine is available,” he says.
The calculation is brutal. The approach means a lower mortality rate but much greater social and economic costs.
The number of beds in the intensive care units becomes the crucial benchmark on which to adjust everything else. Greater capacity not only brings better healthcare but also greater flexibility on shutdowns and the economy.
Senior figures in the Morrison government regard herd immunity as “unconscionable” if it means letting the infection rip. Their approach appears to be to suppress the infection for as long as possible in the hope of a vaccine.
Can Australians trust this strategy? This question is totally different to one about confidence in the $130 billion wage subsidy, which is easier to measure.
Australians deserve to have the health objective articulated and subject to real scrutiny, with at least two changes. First, federal Parliament – after it resumes on Wednesday to vote on the economic plan – should have a continuing role in testing the health strategy. The British Parliament has a committee that has heard testimony from health officials during the crisis. Australia can surely do the same.
Second, state and federal governments need to release their modelling on the pandemic. The commonwealth’s deputy chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, suggested on Tuesday he would do so this week. On Wednesday he backtracked. Voters should be able to see the information.
Morrison and his government have done much this week to shore up confidence. But why stop there?
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.