Prime Minister Scott Morrison touring the AstraZeneca facility in Sydney (Image: AAP/Nick Moir)

Trust the science.

Since the very beginning of the pandemic, that’s been billed as the way through it all, a reassuring mantra reminding us we’re in safe hands. 

And by and large, Australians, law-abiding as we are, have found that easy to do.

We’ve listened to the experts, stayed home, mostly masked up when required. The Q-pilled conspiracy theorists are a minority, and the dorky libertarian let it rip crowd mostly remain a marginal presence in News Corp’s funny pages.

But, suddenly, that way-too-simple bit of advice suddenly seems a whole lot more confusing.

“The science” really wasn’t clear-cut back in March, when we faced a novel, deadly virus we still knew little about.

Modelling, even good modelling, has been way off, because there just wasn’t enough data about the virus yet. And six months later, while we know a lot more, the mantra just seems to be getting harder to follow.

Science can still be messy and uncertain. Reasonable minds will disagree on the best way to manage a once-in-a-century pandemic. There’s a constant divide among experts bubbling away over whether we can, in fact eliminate the virus from Australia.

Such differences are inevitable. But politicians tend to add to the confusion and noise, and make trusting the science all the more difficult. 

On Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews released Victoria’s cautious, incremental roadmap back to “normal”. Underpinning the plan was modelling which said the state would be right back in lockdown come Christmas if restrictions were eased too early.

“You can’t argue with this sort of data, you can’t argue with science,” Andrews said, very confidently.

Except many experts did, suggesting the modelling was built on outdated assumptions, and unclear parameters. At the same time, plenty of epidemiologists threw their weight behind Andrews’ plan. 

We also learnt this week that some of the rules, ostensibly backed by “the science”, came from nowhere at all.

Right now, nobody will take responsibility for the nightly curfew, by far the most draconian and controversial element of Melbourne’s current plan.

On Tuesday, chief health officer Brett Sutton said the curfew wasn’t his idea.

On Thursday, Victoria Police Commissioner Shane Patton said he hadn’t asked for it either, despite Andrews saying police wanted it to make enforcing restrictions easier. Turns out the curfew was all just a bit of heavy-handed shock and awe.

But there’s also a real sense this week that a lot of the debate in Australia is divided not by science but by partisan bickering and interstate rivalry.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison immediately hit out at Andrews’ plan. So did Health Minister Greg Hunt. 

And the latest source of tension is over Queensland’s decision to keep its borders shut to NSW and the ACT.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was just following health advice, and accused Morrison of “bullying” when he tearfully begged her to let a Canberra woman attend her father’s funeral.

At the same time, NSW has largely kept the virus under control. There hasn’t been a new case in the ACT for 62 days. And Palaszczuk has an election to win next month. It’s easy to get cynical about it all. 

The problem here isn’t really the science.

Good epidemiologists and health experts will tell you there’s always uncertainty, things we don’t know. Trying to balance stopping the virus with protecting people’s emotional wellbeing and stimulating the economy is a fiendishly difficult task.

At the same time, it’s become more obvious than ever this week that politics is getting in the way of an honest, well-thought-out appraisal of where Australia is at in the COVID-19 struggle.

Politicians aren’t scientific communicators. Morrison aside, (ironically enough, he has a Bachelor of Science in geography), nobody in federal cabinet has a science degree.

Politicians don’t tend towards an honesty that reflects the messy, inconvenient uncertainty of the pandemic, but towards spin, triumphalism, and point-scoring over their rivals. 

On Monday, the Morrison government declared all Australians would get a free COVID-19 vaccine by early next year, thanks to a deal with AstraZeneca.

Then science got in the way. Clinical trials were paused because a participant got sick. All totally run-of-the-mill stuff, but not a good fit with the government’s narrative of a vaccine around the corner.

Science deals in ifs and buts. Politicians deal in absolutes. And the tense uneasy alliance between the two is a concerning preview of the battles that will dominate our post-lockdown landscape.