Yet again, Scott Morrison’s failure to prepare the health system has created a complete disaster over Omicron.
Morrison’s failures have seen hospitals and the testing system completely overwhelmed and unable to cope in the face of the surge in cases. His move to kick Novak Djokovic out of the country was a desperate attempt to play to the politics of “strong borders” and distract attention from the growing discontent with the Liberals.
He has tried to duck responsibility by claiming “Omicron changed everything”. But an increase in COVID cases was always predicted as lockdowns and other restrictions were lifted once we reached high rates of vaccination.
Morrison did nothing to prepare for any rise in cases—no funding for nurses and public hospitals, no free RAT tests, no speed up to booster shots for aged care.
The failure in aged care is particularly criminal when 80 per cent of those dying in this wave are over 70. The aged care booster rollout slowed in December as the cases rose.
Testing has all but collapsed, and people queue for hours for PCR tests. Some have waited almost a week for results. Others never received them, with one pathology company in Melbourne messaging people after seven days, saying their samples had become too old to process.
Morrison was warned months ago by the peak doctors’ body, the AMA, and others that a spike in cases could see PCR testing overwhelmed. Yet nothing was done to place bulk orders for rapid tests until the system was on the verge of collapse.
Instead Morrison was more concerned with chemist and supermarket profits, dismissing calls for free rapid tests, saying, “We can’t just go round and make everything free.”
Yet Britain alone has already provided hundreds of millions of free test kits, as have Singapore, Portugal, Germany and some states in Canada and the US. Rapid tests have been widely used overseas for months.
Unions have been calling for wider use of them here since last July.
Hospital staff in NSW and Victoria are fatigued and overwhelmed after repeated COVID surges over the past two years. They were understaffed even before Omicron hit. Figures presented to National Cabinet in October showed there were actually 200 less ICU beds across the country than at before the pandemic. Now, with thousands of health workers isolating, hospitals face crippling staff shortages.
Fifty intensive care nurses at Sydney’s Westmead hospital staged a protest with placards saying “stop playing with people’s lives” calling for governments to act urgently to increase staffing levels.
In Queensland in early December, while the state still had zero COVID cases, the AMA’s Kim Hansen said that hospitals were already “stretched to breaking point”, with “not enough beds and not enough staff”.
Nurses’ unions in every state should call stopwork protests for the extra staff and funding needed—to deal with this crisis and future COVID waves. Other unions should join them.
When the pandemic began, the government introduced JobKeeper for those affected by workplace closures, funded free PCR testing and praised “essential workers”, saying we were “all in it together”. That was always a lie—businesses rorted JobKeeper to boost profits, while casual and migrant workers were not even included in the scheme.
But now, instead of fixing the health system, Morrison is throwing the vast majority of the population to the wolves, saying it’s a “personal responsibility” to avoid infection and manage if we get sick.
Morrison’s changed definitions mean that close contacts are now being forced to work in many industries.
In mid-January the ACTU finally called a meeting of unions to respond to Morrison and the COVID crisis, calling for free RAT tests and measures to allow workers to safely isolate. But it backed away from its initial promising calls for stopwork action to demand safe workplaces.
McManus was reported saying, “the vast majority of business were doing the right thing”, and “We’re not wanting strikes.” But we can’t afford “business as usual”.
Our union leaders need to start a campaign for guaranteed testing and sick pay, free rapid tests and improved ventilation in workplaces, including schools.
Such a fight would be enormously popular. Strike action could force Morrison to fund the hospitals and provide RAT tests, and give workers the confidence to fight on the job for the safety measures they need.
Nurses, teachers, warehouse workers, truck drivers—the front line workers who were hailed as the heroes of the pandemic—are now paying for the COVID crisis with their wages, jobs and safety at work.
NSW nurses have made a start. Teachers in NSW are planning more strikes for the start of the year in their fight to break the wage cap.
Morrison is on the slide. We need to fan the flames of resistance and escalate the struggle to fight to end the Morrison government and the sick capitalist system.
Health funding key, not focus on more restrictions
Many have blamed the easing of restrictions in mid-December, especially in NSW, for the surge in Omicron cases. This likely did speed up transmission.
After a week, Perrottet was forced to reverse his scrapping of the requirements to wear masks indoors, impose density limits in hospitality and QR check-in codes at low risk venues. Singing and dancing at nightclubs and other venues is now also banned.
But the spread of the new variant at breathtaking speed worldwide and in every state shows that, short of a severe lockdown, further restrictions will not dramatically slow cases.
Lockdowns and border restrictions could not keep the virus out forever. Australia’s rate of vaccination now means the risk of serious illness is far less, and a well funded health system could have managed the surge.
But Perrottet, Morrison and the other state premiers have steadfastly refused to increase resources in the hospitals or the testing system where it could make a serious difference.
Calls for a return to more severe restrictions and border rules aimed at keeping unvaccinated people out are distractions from the fight to win more funding for the public health system.