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Anatomy of a state of disaster

Aug 12, 2020 • 16m 11s

Ten days ago, Melbourne entered the strictest shutdown the country has seen so far. Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the extraordinary powers a state of disaster bestows on the government, and how we got here.

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Anatomy of a state of disaster

285 • Aug 12, 2020

Anatomy of a state of disaster

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Ten days ago, Melbourne entered the strictest shutdown the country has seen so far, and one of the harshest lockdowns currently taking place in the world.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton, on the extraordinary powers a state of disaster bestows on the government, and how we got here.

RUBY:

Rick, Victoria is currently in a state of disaster. Can you outline for me what that actually means?

RICK:

All right. So, Premier Daniel Andrews actually signed this declaration for a state of disaster in Victoria at 1:43pm on Sunday, August the 2nd. It was the one part of a final salvo in a battle to control the spread of this invisible enemy, the coronavirus in the state...

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“Everybody alright to go?”

RICK:

...less than an hour later. The Victorian premier walked to the podium he has fronted for about a month now straight consecutively, and announced the declaration alongside a curfew and these devastating stage four lockdowns covering some five million people.

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“First of all, from 6:00 p.m. tonight, I'm declaring a state of disaster across Victoria.”

RICK:

And it ceded almost total control over the state's public service to the police and the Emergency Services Minister, Lisa Neville, and former Deputy Police Commissioner Andrew Crisp, who's now in charge of Emergency Management Victoria.

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“There's a range of additional powers that the state of disaster gives you…”

RICK:

And now Crisp is a delegate of the minister under this legislation. And he would have the power to, and I'm quoting from the legislation here, direct any government agency to do or refrained from doing any act or to exercise or perform or refrain from exercising or performing any function power, duty, or responsibility and suspend any law or subordinate instrument that might ordinarily bind public servants.

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“This means that police and others have additional powers. We can suspend various acts of parliament. We can make sure that we get the job done. And there's no question about the enforceability and the way in which new rules will operate.”

RICK:

So the entire statute book of the state of Victoria has gone out the window under a state of disaster.

RUBY:

Right. And those are fairly overarching powers then. And this is extraordinary, really, this legal situation. So let's talk about what prompted the Victorian government to take this step. What information was it getting about the transmission of the virus?

RICK:

It's a really good question because a declaration can only be made once the premier has been advised by the police and Emergency Services Minister that the criteria are met and we don't know exactly all of the advice that the state government was given in the lead up to that. But we do know that, you know, days before this was announced, officials knew that the stage three lockdowns across the city in Mitchell Shire had saved the state, an estimated 9000 to 37000 infections between the 2nd and the 30th of July. So it was working, but it was not enough to flatten the overall growth rate.

So the data, which was eventually published in the Medical Journal of Australia, had been handed over to the Victorian and federal governments a few days earlier. So before they declared the state a disaster so that, you know, they could see for themselves what needed to be done. And public health and vaccine researcher Allan Saul, who's an honorary fellow at the Burnett Institute and lead author on that MJA paper, told me, without a fast reduction in numbers, there is a big risk that existing controls will not be sustainable.

Archival tape -- Allen Saul:

“...about sustainability of the program. So it's very difficult to keep people enthusiastic for long periods of time unless you see some positive results.”

RICK:

Now, what ultimately really terrified the government into adopting these more extreme measures, were the then 760 mystery cases, that's a phrase used by Daniel Andrews himself, where the government couldn't trace the source of the COVID-19 infection.

Archival tape -- Allen Saul:

“I can only imagine that if you've got three, four, five hundred or even 700 cases a day and you've got that over a period of time, the amount of contact tracing required becomes huge.”

RICK:

They'd done all of the questioning. They'd found out all of the close contacts. They'd spoken to everyone that might have come into contact with that they could find and they could not identify the source of the infection in 760 people.

RUBY:

And so is that a failure of contact tracing or is it just the case that there was no possible way for the contact tracers to be able to pin it down?

RICK:

Well, there were definitely failures early on in Victoria in contact tracing. And, to some extent, they're overwhelmed now, even though they've bolstered the team by, you know, fifteen hundred (what they call) coronavirus detectives, which is very quaint. But at a certain point, you're only as good as the information you're getting from the people you're investigating. So if the person with Coronavirus can't remember everywhere they've been or you can't get a hold of, you know, the mobile number they've got for the person that they thought they’d spend some time with doesn't work and you can't find this person, then you're only as good as that information coming in.

So it's a combination of manpower. Obviously, you need a huge team with these huge numbers. But also, if you don't have the data, there's no magic. You can't go to a clairvoyant to find out where this thing has been. You're just stuck. And that's when they after all of those avenues have been exhausted. That's when they dumped them in this mystery cases folder. And it's a huge folder and that's a huge problem.

RUBY:

Mm hmm. So do we know what would have happened if Victoria had stayed on that, that same trajectory that it was on under the stage three restrictions?

RICK:

Daniel Andrews himself actually said at the press conference on Sunday when all of this was announced, that if we pursued this strategy with a view to driving down numbers to a very low level, a containable level where the state could reopen, it would likely be the end of the year before we could reopen.

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“That's a six month strategy that is simply not going to work. Therefore, we have to do more and we have to do more right now.”

RICK:

You know, he said the measures introduced with stage three, for parts of Melbourne were impressively successful. And without them, if the growth rate prior to the restrictions had continued, we would be facing thousands of cases per day, not hundreds.

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“The current rules have avoided thousands and thousands of cases each day, and then thousands of people in hospital and many more tragedies than we have seen. But it is not working fast enough.”

RICK:

That's what prompted Andrews to use these extraordinary powers across the state. For the first time in history, they've been used in parts of the state, but never across the entire state of Victoria.

RUBY:

We'll be back after this.

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RUBY:

Rick, we know that Covid-19 case numbers were continuing to rise in Victoria, which was what prompted this stage four lockdown. But what exactly did the government want to do that it couldn't do without declaring a state of disaster?

RICK:

Well, is the million dollar question at this point. And to be quite honest with you, I don't think the state government knows exactly. Well, certainly it hasn't been able to articulate to me what extra powers it needed to justify this particular declaration. You know, Victoria Police already have powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 to enforce the orders of the chief health officer, Brett Sutton. But Daniel Andrews said the declaration would give our police additional powers to make sure people are complying with public health directions, although, again, it's not clear what these powers are.

But, you know, experts I spoke to said the goal is really to eliminate any doubt about the more technical legalities that might be pushing up against some of the decisions the government wants to make driving the pandemic. And if you're thinking about it flexibly and you're in an emergency and you're the commissioner and you're coming in saying we need to get, you know, everyone from the DHHS contact tracing unit, we need to put them out into the community. And you there's some weird law saying they can't actually work somewhere that doesn't have a lab or something like that. Then all of a sudden you can't do something quickly.

The commissioner can actually suspend any act of parliament, any statute if he gets pushback from the public service. Now, obviously, that can be used for bad and good. And it's just a kind of a crapshoot. And we won't know what gets used until well after this thing is done and over. But, you know, the delegates in this case are immune from any civil or criminal penalty for their actions that are taken in good, genuine faith during the disaster itself.

RUBY:

Right. Okay. And is there any precedent for, for a situation like this, Rick?

RICK:

Not across the entire state, but there is a precedent for not doing it more often than there is for doing it. So after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the royal commission criticized the state government for not declaring the state disaster, even though it met the criteria.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“It’s been 15 months since Black Saturday ravaged Victoria, claiming 173 lives. The Royal Commission into the disaster begins its final week of hearings tomorrow and the Victorian government will be in the firing line.”

RICK:

And in that report, the commission says, you know, although we conclude that the minister for Police and Emergency Services acted properly before and during the bushfires, we consider that he should have raised the option of declaring a state of disaster with the premier.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“At the highest levels of emergency management, the commission's lawyers have said leadership was missing at the hour of crisis.”

RICK:

And they go on to say, the circumstances clearly met the criteria for such consideration. And even if practical cross agency and community cooperation was already in evidence and no additional coercive powers were needed, such a declaration would have recognized the gravity of the situation and might have sharpened emergency agencies focus on community safety and warnings.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“It’s a brutal assessment of those at the helm during Australia's worst bushfire disaster. It’s as if we say, as if the senior fire personnel were powerless behind the glass. Unable or unwilling to influence or attempt to influence the tragedy that was unfolding.”

RICK:

So you can imagine a Victorian government doesn't want to be in a situation where down the track, when we're raking over the coals of these decisions, then everything that's been done during this pandemic, where it gets criticized for not doing everything it legally could in its power. And this absolutely meets the criteria.

A pandemic is absolutely a natural disaster, but it does not behave in any way, shape or form like any of the previous things that we've come up against in this country. So that's where things get really interesting.

RUBY:

Rick, the question, I suppose, that all of this comes down to, in a sense, is will these strict new regulations work? Will all of this bring the numbers down in Victoria?

RICK:

Well, you know it's been a haunting and at times bizarre week in Victoria. You've got the premier posting photos from traffic monitoring cameras showing completely empty freeways and major arterial roads in Melbourne with the caption, ‘thank you’.

And you've got, you know, the leadership kind of walking this delicate balance between tough control measures and hoping that compliance fatigue or even exasperation doesn't continue to take hold in the community. If this drags on, people get bored and then they get angry and then they just stop complying.

And the problem I think that they've run into is that they probably should have done some of these workplace measures first, because people have been subjected to the lockdown for ages. And at the beginning there were, you know, willing to do everything correctly. And there were a couple of outlying cases where they didn't. But for the most part, everyone's doing their bit and it's still going on.

So, you know, on Thursday at the press conference, Professor Alan Cheng, who's just been newly seconded from Monash University to Victoria's Department of Human Health and Human Services, he said the best evidence the state has now is that the reproduction value of the R effective of SARS-CoV-2 has come close to 1.

Archival tape -- Alan Cheng:

“So what it's suggested at the moment is the effective reproduction rate is probably sitting around 1. Which means that…”

RICK:

Now, that's the magic barrier. So a value below 1 means that any infectious person with COVID-19, transmits the virus to fewer than one person on average. That means over time the numbers would come down. But the so-called R-effective number responds to the slightest gap in the measures. So any slip, any slip at all, and it goes right back up again. So, you know, Andrew's in his presser on Thursday when things were getting dark. You know, he's saying the only thing I can predict is that the virus will not stop.

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“This virus doesn't stop. Neither do I. And I won't be stopping…”

RICK:

...and trying to predict where it ends up on any given day, let alone in six weeks, is really hard.

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“Well, I'll boldly predict there'll be further outbreaks and there'll be further positive cases. This is not a binary thing. It's not an absolute thing.”

RICK:

But he said, you know, if people don't all accept that we're in this together, whether we like that fact or not, we will not drive these numbers down.

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“This is the only way we will drive down movement and therefore the number of cases and therefore get to the other side of this.”

RICK:

And I think if we don't in six weeks, then that really is inconceivable because they've, they've shot their last shot, I think, short of welding the door shut like happened in China.

RUBY:

Thank you so much for your time today.

RICK:

Thanks, Ruby, I appreciate it.

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RUBY:

Also in the news…

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared the state is on a knife edge after 22 new coronavirus cases were reported yesterday.

It’s the highest daily result figure since April 16.

Eight of the cases are linked to a cluster at a school in Cherrybrook. The Premier has described the situation in NSW as “a daily battle”.

And a state parliamentary inquiry examining Victoria’s hotel quarantine program has heard that five different departments were responsible for the initiative’s management.

The Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said the hearing had demonstrated how complex the governance of the hotel quarantine program was, and said that while she was responsible for her department she wasn’t responsible for the other’s involved.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

Ten days ago, Melbourne entered the strictest shutdown the country has seen so far, and one of the harshest lockdowns currently taking place in the world. Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the extraordinary powers a state of disaster bestows on the government, and how we got here.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

What led to Victoria’s extraordinary shutdown in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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285: Anatomy of a state of disaster