Australia's fight against coronavirus sees confusing mixed messages

By Kirsty Needham
Australian Prime Minister Morrison speaks during a state memorial honouring victims of the Australian bushfires in Sydney

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The fight against the coronavirus in Australia is being hampered by mixed messages from the national and state governments, leaving the public confused, as the prime minister's incremental approach contrasts with a state push to 'go hard, go fast'.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has set up a National Cabinet of national and state leaders, but the goal of a unified response appears to be fraying as states forge their own paths.

As in the United States, power in Australia is separated between the states and national government. U.S. president Donald Trump has expressed unhappiness at shutdowns by U.S. states and says he wants "packed churches" on Easter Sunday.

Morrison hasn't downplayed the health impacts of the crisis but is seen to be prioritising the economy, while the biggest states, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, which have the most coronavirus cases, have pushed for faster containment measures and even talked of some form of lockdowns.

So as Morrison said schools would stay open, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews brought forward school holidays and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian asked parents to keep kids at home.

"At a time of great public uncertainty, Mr Morrison has only succeeded in adding to the sense of dread," Professor Mark Kenny of the Australian Studies Institute at the Australian National University told Reuters.

Morrison moved decisively in declaring a pandemic weeks before the World Health Organization and applied early travel bans on coronavirus hotspots like China, Iran and Italy, but the messaging since then has been "hot and cold, and some aspects of policy have undermined others", he said.

The different priorities are partly driven by how power is divided: states run schools and hospitals, while the national government, which will foot the bill for skyrocketing stimulus measures which already total 10 percent of national output, wants to avoid completely shutting down the economy.

"I am going to fight for every job I can," Morrison said after the national cabinet met on Friday.


PUBLIC CONFUSION

Australia's tiers of government and size make it harder to match the much-cited success of Singapore in limiting both the transmission and death rates of coronavirus.

Victorian Premier Andrews said on Friday that coronavirus transmission curves differed between states and that states would take action driven by their own needs for the next stage in the fight against the virus.

Andrews and Berejiklian have indicated they are ready to move towards a more complete shutdown, while states such as Tasmania, Queensland and South Australia have closed their borders to non-residents.

Morrison has warned Australians not to wish for a complete lockdown as such a drastic move could be in place for at least six months and would severely hurt livelihoods.

A sign of the zeitgeist, retired cricket star Shane Warne drew praise for describing Morrison's late-night explanation of a selective shutdown of non-essential services including pubs, gyms and restaurants, and limiting funerals to 10 people but still allowing people to get a haircut as a "shocker".

"Listening to the PM like everyone here in Australia and what I understood was 'It's essential. Unless it's not. Then it's essentially not essential," Warne told his 3.5 million followers on Twitter.

The public confusion wasn't helped by quick reversals on decisions to immediately cancel elective surgery in private hospitals, and to remove a 30-minute limit for haircuts.

Comparing the situation to the 2008 global financial crisis, the ANU's Kenny said consistency in government messaging can add to or subtract from public confidence.

"In 2008, then prime minister Kevin Rudd managed to convince Australians that even if they could not understand the scale and duration of the financial meltdown, their government did. Mr Morrison on the other hand, seems unsure and has failed to inspire confidence," said Kenny.


(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)