With something as devastating as the coronavirus, we can’t afford to get things wrong. This week’s spectacular slip-up in Queensland — for which officials are refusing to apologise — shows why it’s so important for public officials to get their facts right if they don’t want public health to be undermined.
Over the weekend the state’s health officials blamed a young man for hosting a party of 25 people in his home while he waited for the results of a COVID-19 test which proved to be positive.
Understandably, in a state where residents have willingly followed instructions to stay virus-free, that accusation caused outrage. Trolls focused their attention on the young man, who is now in hospital, and talk erupted over whether specific laws should target those who recklessly put themselves over others. The media, too, had a field day.
Except none of it was true.
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As the man at the centre of the accusations told Nine News, he had remained home with his flatmates while awaiting the test results. This was later confirmed by police.
It’s the state government’s response to its own bungle that should be considered here, as Queensland goes back into lockdown on the back of what the chief health officer is calling significant community transmission. Health Minister Yvette D’Ath, while unable to explain the own goal, refused repeatedly to apologise to the COVID patient.
“That is the information that I was briefed on at the time,’’ she said.
But it was wrong.
Police officials also quickly attacked the media over its “inflammatory’’ reporting — which was based on information straight from the health department’s press release.
It all looked a bit too much like an episode of Yes Minister. This might have been one clumsy mistake, but the lack of transparency and accountability, and the refusal to explain how and why the error was made or to apologise to the man in question, undermines the government’s public health policy and message.
That was evident within 30 minutes of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announcing a three-day lockdown to stem a further rise in cases.
As the premier warned against panic buying and maintained that residents could continue to leave their homes to buy food (as well as exercise, essential work and medical appointments), supermarket queues began to bulge.
Toilet paper disappeared quickly, along with bread, eggs and milk. The chaos was matched by the government’s imprecise details about who needed to lock down. Was it anyone who recently visited Brisbane? When? What about their families?
Governments always want people to trust them, but at times of natural disasters or emergencies public compliance is crucial. Queensland, through equal doses of good luck and good management, has had striking success in dealing with COVID-19.
A big part of that has been its residents understanding the threat of this pandemic in a state with a high proportion of ageing parents, and doing their share to stop it. Told to wear a mask in public, few ignore the order. Told to stay home, Queenslanders have closed their front door. Told to get tested and the wait-time suddenly leaps to five hours.
That compliance has delivered strong results for the government: the state has remained largely free of COVID-19 and Labor reaped the rewards of that at the last election. But it’s been based on a belief that the government can be trusted, is taking advice from experts, and is accountable in its decision making.
That’s now beginning to look shoddy. Last week, it was revealed that a young doctor who had not been vaccinated tested positive after working with coronavirus patients.
The vaccine rollout is not proceeding as claimed, and GP clinics are unable to explain to nervous patients what is happening with supplies.
The government’s registration app is not being taken up by businesses, and the its contract-tracing ability is being questioned in other states.
And a young man in hospital with COVID-19 is accused of wilfully throwing a party against health orders, and when that’s found to be absolutely wrong, the government shrugs its shoulders.
The state’s mantra of blaming the Commonwealth on the back of that string of mishaps won’t wash. And it would be a pity — not just for the government — if it also led to fewer Queenslanders complying with this week’s pre-Easter lockdown.
How badly has the Queensland government stuffed up? Let us know your thoughts by writing to email@example.com. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.