In the last few days, Queensland has recorded more COVID-19 cases than in the previous two years because the state is opening too fast, too soon and without adequate preparation of the health system.
Until recently, the Queensland Labor government basically pursued an elimination strategy. Despite howls from the Liberal Party, right wing media, and tourism and airline bosses, Queensland’s borders remained firmly shut to states with community transmission. In July, an outbreak of the Delta variant in Brisbane was crushed through a sharp lockdown. State Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk boasted that public health measures had allowed for a “Queensland lifestyle”, where socialising and work could be safely undertaken.
But in October, Labor decided to allow COVID-19 into the state and gamble with our health and our lives. After initially resisting the national roadmap to reopening—Palaszczuk questioned the safety of lifting public health restrictions while children remain unvaccinated—the state government agreed to tie the loosening of border restrictions to vaccination milestones. There was no pretence that this would be good for public health. “No matter what we do, [COVID-19] will arrive and every single one of us will end up getting infected”, then Chief Health Officer Jeanette Young said on 15 October.
The shift was a spineless capitulation to tourism and retail bosses hankering for profits before Christmas. Queensland granted more than 400,000 border passes for December, just as New South Wales experienced an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak and the new Omicron variant of the virus began to establish itself.
On 18 December, Queensland recorded 42 new COVID-19 cases. Eleven days later, the number is 1,539—a reproduction rate among the highest in the country. And the number is almost certainly an undercount, because Queensland’s testing clinics have fast become overwhelmed, with reports of half-day waits and many centres reaching capacity just hours after opening. Contact tracing has been all but abandoned, as has the publicising of most exposure sites on the government website.
The Labor government has enthusiastically signed on to the NSW-style approach to public health: accepting the inevitable spread of COVID-19 and relegating attempts to prevent illness to “personal responsibility”. Speaking at a Boxing Day press conference, Queensland’s new Chief Health Officer John Gerrard said: “Not only is the spread of this virus inevitable, it is necessary. In order for us to go from the pandemic phase to the endemic phase, the virus has to be widespread.”
Each day Gerrard has fronted the media and read from the Liberal Party playbook, insisting that the number of COVID-19 infections is less important than the number of hospitalisations. Despite evidence that Omicron may be less severe than previous variants, uncontrolled infection will nevertheless lead to an increasing number of hospitalisations, a circumstance for which Queensland’s health system is dreadfully underprepared.
Brendan Worrall, Queensland’s auditor-general, has already noted that Queensland’s hospital system is overcapacity. The Audit Office’s December Health 2021 report noted that Queensland ambulances collectively spent 111,000 hours ramped outside hospitals last year, an increase of 76 percent from the previous year. Hospital workers have reported chronic shortages and exhaustion. Only on 20 December did the Queensland government allocate extra funding for the health system, supposedly in response to the emergence of Omicron. Yet nurses and doctors cannot be trained overnight. Nor can resources be stockpiled or the impact of two years of fatigue be undone.
The “let it rip” strategy is a potential disaster for those known to be most at risk from COVID-19. Just 64 percent of Queensland’s Aboriginal population has been fully vaccinated. Disability advocates have demanded a vaccine mandate be imposed on support workers, and for home vaccination efforts to be undertaken for the particularly vulnerable. “Living with the virus” will also involve trashing the general standard of public health, as many previously healthy people have been debilitated by “long COVID” following relatively mild illness.
Queensland Labor should put public health first. Non-essential industries should be shut down, and border restrictions restored to stymie the spread, to give COVID-19 testing and contact tracing facilities a chance to catch up and to give the health system some breathing space. But the ALP is doing the opposite. In the face of Queensland’s greatest health crisis to date in the pandemic, the state government is digging its heels in and going with the “let it rip” strategy that has been so disastrous in other parts of the world.
Having abandoned its inclination to defy the right wing and put public health before business profits, Queensland Labor has announced that, from 1 January, travellers require only a self-administered Rapid Antigen Test—less accurate than the standard PCR test—to enter the state. And Health Minister Yvette D’Ath has announced that those entering Queensland no longer required a COVID-19 test on their fifth day in the state.
By following the New South Wales model, Labor is leading Queensland down a grim path. With upwards of 6,000 daily cases and some 2,000 health workers across the state furloughed, the NSW public health system has been crippled. What fate awaits Queensland without action to address the current skyrocketing caseload?
Back in September, when it seemed that she might hold the line against mass infections, Palaszczuk said: “People know me, I stand by what I believe in”. Queensland Labor has affirmed its belief that business profits come first, and is trashing public health and two years of hard work.