Coronavirus scott morrison brendan murphy
Scott Morrison and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

After China’s success in curbing the spread of COVID-19 and the catastrophe unfolding in Italy and Spain, most of the western world is locking down their citizens. 

UK, Canada, New Zealand, many US states and much of Europe have done so (and the results in Italy appear to be cautiously positive with new cases dropping day-on-day). 

The exception remains Australia, which is now undertaking a disorderly mass of closures, forcing millions out of work, but allowing random businesses like hairdressers and shopping centres (and schools) to remain open. 

While effective in bankrupting thousands of businesses, it is ineffective at properly curbing the spread of the virus as there is extreme confusion on what individuals can do.

 First, we’ll look at what will happen as a result of this path. 

Second, we’ll try to provide some rationale for it.

Since March 10, Australian infections have grown at 25.1% per day — that’s an exponential curve. If that rate continues in two weeks’ we will have 33,000 cases. In fifteen days, we will have 66,000 cases (where Italy is at). 

While it is likely that the semi-measures announced will reduce this rate, it will remain significant. 

The quicker we act with a full lockdown the caseload significantly reduces. As John Hempton noted yesterday, “if you can get the halving rate to three days, what are now 50,000 probable infections will dwindle to 50 in just a month. Most of those will have symptoms and be able to self-identify. Then we will have infection loads that track and trace, as we’ve seen in some Asian countries.”

The Australian piecemeal approach seems to adopt the worst of both worlds. Economically it is catastrophic, the majority of businesses have been compulsorily closed by the government. 

Even worse, there is no endgame so owners (and consumers) are fearful and will overreact. 

Meanwhile, asymptomatic super spreaders are free to roam around supermarkets and get haircuts, while children can go to school and infect their elderly teachers while people can go to the supermarket a dozen times a day.

Morrison and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy have overruled Victoria and NSW in preventing a full lockdown. One explanation is some sort of political motivation from Morrison.

An alternative view is that Morrison himself preferred a full shutdown on March 18 and was been influenced by Murphy and Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Sources have told Crikey that both the Office of National Assessments and ASIS directly advised Morrison to move to full lockdown. 

It is understood that the PM and most of cabinet agreed, but Greg Hunt and Murphy aggressively advocated against that approach.

Murphy (who is heading up the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee) however, is far from an expert on pandemics. He has zero experience in complex mathematical modelling.

UK PM Boris Johnson, who quickly flipped from adopting “herd immunity” to a full lockdown, wisely listened to the advice of the Imperial College of London. 

The US has been influenced by Yaneer Bar-Yam, renowned systems scientist and physicist from the New England Complex System Institute.

As for Murphy, well, he’s a long-time bureaucrat at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne. His background isn’t in disease or pandemics or mathematical modelling, rather, he was a nephrologist (until 2005 anyway) — that is, he was an expert on kidney health. 

In short, we have a flip-flopping and publicity hungry PM way out of his depth, being advised by a kidney expert turned hospital executive who seems even more out of his depth.

As I say, the worst of both worlds.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.