• John McDonnell

Scott Morrison confronts the states over the national plan

Prime Minister Morrison in Question Time on Monday

The prime minister called a special press conference on Monday morning to reinforce the commitment to the national plan for opening up and living with the virus. Over the last week, the government has pivoted away from an emphasis on suppressing the virus to learning to live with it.

This has been necessitated by the increasing number of cases of COVID-19 Delta variant infections in New South Wales and Victoria and the likelihood that these states will never eliminate the virus.

The pivot by the Commonwealth has resulted in a pushback by Western Australia and Queensland, who have now raised doubts about whether they are prepared to accept the national plan.

The Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan has questioned the validity of the Doherty Institute modelling. In light of the changes in the NSW case numbers, Mr McGowan demanded that the analysis be done again to indicate the increases in hospitalisations and deaths that would result from ending the lockdowns.

In Queensland, The Australian newspaper reports that the government is considering keeping the borders closed even after the national vaccination coverage reaches 80 per cent if numbers in NSW are high.

The PM has reacted to this concern by the premiers with case numbers by stating categorically that once 70 per cent vaccination coverage is reached then case numbers will cease to be important. He told the press conference that Australians will have to learn to live with the virus and that once 70 per cent is reached then the important benchmarks will be hospitalisations and deaths. “The aim”, he said, “will be to keep people from harm and to treat their illnesses”.

Mr Morrison went on to say that the significant thing about the work that the Doherty Institute and the Treasury had done, was that it showed that once 70 per cent vaccination coverage is achieved, the imposition of lockdowns does more harm than good.

During question time on Monday, the opposition leader Anthony Albanese called on the government to table the advice that dealt with the implications of opening up with much higher rates of infection. The prime minister said he didn’t have this advice in writing, but the advice was that higher cases did not change the plan. This is true because under the model the peak caseload is the same regardless of the number of cases you start with.

On Sunday, Professor Jodie McGovern of the Doherty Institute told Sky News that she was working with Professor James Woods of UNSW on a plan for NSW to move out of lockdown when vaccination coverage nationally hit 70per cent. That work will be made public in due course.

The politics of the national plan are complicated.

To retain government, Morrison needs to win 26 seats in Queensland and 26 in NSW as well as holding three marginal seats in WA. The west and Southern Queensland are likely to favour isolationism above freedom. North Queensland and NSW will want restrictions removed so business can get back to normal.

From the opposition perspective, Anthony Albanese will want to avoid being characterised as Captain Lockdown, which could cost him the vital seats in Sydney he needs to win the election.