Tim Read on the government's coronavirus response

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Interview of Tim Read MP with Brunswick News

30 July 2020

John Ferguson in the Australian puts the blame for Victoria's coronavirus ordeal directly onto Daniel Andrews and his ministers.

Tim Read MP is a doctor with experience in infectious diseases, and is the Greens member of the Victorian parliament for Brunswick.

Who better than Tim Read to respond to Mr Ferguson's charges?

For a short answer, Tim's judgement is that the Ferguson piece is anti-Labor propaganda, in tone and in substance. It is "tribal", and that is no help just now. Indeed, I don't recall any substantial arguments from the article that I can put to Tim, it being more of a straight-out opinion piece than an investigation.

Tim says that the coronavirus epidemic is a new type of problem and the only thing that could be guaranteed in advance is that mistakes would be made. When a mistake is made, it is hard to know where the decision came from - CHO, health minister or premier.

Over all, Tim says the state government seems to have done a reasonable job. He is not on the inside, and when mistakes occur, eg Cedar Meats, hotel quarantine, he is not the one to know who did what when. He urges (more) transparency, saying the state government can well afford it, having vast reserves of political capital. Tim expects the public to be charitable when things do not go smoothly as long as there is transparency from the government.

Here we have one point of difference with John Ferguson, on which time will tell, who says the public is on the point of turning on Andrews.

Tim says the government has been reasonably up-front and good at answering questions.

Previously he wrote that the government should not be making decisions behind closed doors. How has that turned out? Tim gives a "mixed review". He had hoped for a multiparty committee to keep up with what the government was doing. What they got was that this job was given to the existing PAEC committee, controlled by the government. It is useful, and unexpected questions are sometimes asked, which if they cannot be answered on the spot are answered within a certain time limit. As with any poltical forum, you might get point-scoring smoking gun questions, like who knew what when about Cedar Meats from Liberal members, and the ministers often give long-winded answers to consume the time available and prevent further questions being asked.

Cedar Meats was a case where the system could have done better.

MPs ask about our capacity and medical resources. How many ICU beds do we have? Is there enough PPE? Do we need to set up negative pressure in corona virus wards (preventing any airborne virus particles from escaping)?

I take it from Tim that, though he is not complaining unduly, the government could afford to be a little more transparent both with the public and with opposition and cross-bench parliamentarians. He notes that the quality of briefings to crossbench MPs has dropped off in recent times. Lately the briefings have tended to given rather by ministerial staff than by decision-makers though he acknowledges that there are great demands on their time.

When Tim has a suggestion he sends it direct to the health minister. He trusts that his suggestions are properly considered. Though Tim does not claim all the credit, there have been improvements made to the only public housing tower building in Brunswick in accordance with his suggestions. This building in south Brunswick houses aged residents. Hand sanitisation stations have been put in at all levels and a concierge is now stationed in the entrance foyer.

I ask for Tim's own view whether we are turning the corner in Victoria. He is not sure either way about that. He does not believe the situation will get out of control as long as people do a good job of observing restrictions, such as distancing, masks, and isolation if symptomatic. Getting the infection rate down is a matter of careful, "curious" epidemiological work. A small sub-population not following health advice for some reason is enough to keep the virus propagating. A non-judgemental curiosity is what is needed to find and plug the leaks.

The hotel quarantine issue

Undoubtedly the hotel quarantine problems which seem to have caused the "terrible" second wave outbreaks were a "stuff-up". Tim, emphasising that he does not have inside knowledge, will be interested in what the Coate enquiry reveals and until then he has an open mind. I ask if he agrees with the government keeping quiet about what happened in favour of the inquiry. -Not really, they want to keep it off the front page. If there was a jury trial, ok, they should not talk about it, but in this case they probably know most of it and on the principle of transparency should let the public know. Tim thinks that perhaps it was not uniformed guards that were needed, whether security guards, police or defence personnel but nurses trained in infection control.

This interview is happening because of the piece of John Ferguson's published in the Australian. When opposition leader Michael O'Brien says the government is culpable for ever having used security firms instead of defence personnel he is, let's say, just doing his job. The Australian sees fit to print an op-ed piece on similar lines and that raises the ante; it deserves serious consideration. An even more contentious opinion piece from an academic economist contends that it was "inevitable" that the private security agents would mess up.

Tim thinks that the Liberals would have done the same if they had been in charge.

I ask if, coming from the Liberals, their views on this matter are informed with the benefit of hindsight.

Tim says he does not recall Liberals raising the issue before it blew up.

Changing the subject to something of concern to the Greens, I ask Tim about the hard lock-down of the public housing high-rises in Kensington. Tim said he was stunned by the heavy-handed way this done. He thinks it could have done without such an overwhelming police presence and that the residents could have been afforded a little time at least to get used to the idea. He can imagine circumstances where drastic action could have been required -perhaps a gas leak presenting imminent danger of explosion -but that level of emergency was not present. Tim thinks the government understands that there was an overreaction and notes that Labor MLC Mark Gepp was critical also.

Phone interview of Tim Read 28 July 2020. Journalism by Robert Durkacz 30 July 2020

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