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Richardson: Mixed messages cloud public health communication


“When you’re dealing with a pandemic, it’s better not to be seeking scapegoats and laying blame… it’s actually the virus that’s the common enemy.”

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“If we try and say ‘this person gave me the wrong information’ or ‘they should be made the scapegoat’, that actually doesn’t help fight this virus.”

That was Nicola Spurrier today, sensibly deflecting questions about who informed her that a man in his 30s who had gone on an apparent shopping spree while infectious with that “sneaky” coronavirus had breached a quarantine direction – a point she’d emphasised to the media on the weekend before issuing a sincere public apology yesterday.

Because, as it turned out, he hadn’t breached quarantine at all.

He’d never been directed to quarantine.

To err is human, of course, and as the chief public health officer pointed out several times today: “There’s nothing tidy about a pandemic.”

It is, she added, an “inherently unstable biological system”, added to which “you’ve also got human behaviour”, which is fraught and fallible.

“We all need to practice that kindness, that compassion,” she urged at today’s daily media conference.

Well, quite.

But of course, it’s hard to read her words above without considering the now-infamous case of that 36-year old Spaniard, working in SA on a graduate visa that expires within days.

Where was that milk of human kindness when he was publicly excoriated and, yes, blamed for instigating the aborted statewide lockdown?

It had, as Blackadder once said, gone off. It stinks.

Talking of old TV shows: I’ve never seen Utopia, but others have noted a strange echo of it in some of our authorities’ recent public utterances.

The narrative frequently shifts from one day to the next, and we’re somehow expected to simply forget that something quite different was said as little as 24 hours earlier.

Take the Spanish man’s case: in that febrile moment when it was revealed he had not merely ordered a takeaway meal from the Woodville Pizza Bar but in fact worked several shifts there, the rhetoric was dialled up to 11.

“We now know that [he] lied,” thundered the Premier, whose stock in trade in recent weeks appears to be over-egging public health messaging, as when he alludes to our collective “silent enemy”.

“To say that that I am fuming about the actions of this individual is an absolute understatement – the selfish actions of this individual have put our whole state in a very difficult situation.”

Police Commissioner Grant Stevens was unequivocal: “Had this person been truthful to the contact tracing teams, we would not have gone into a six-day lockdown.”

It was a position he maintained in the following days – even after Spurrier had attempted to turn the dial back down, insisting the lockdown “was not based on the interview with one man” and that “we would never make those decisions in isolation”.

For reasons as yet ill-explained, Stevens then announced a major police taskforce, charged with “investigating all the circumstances relating to the information that was provided to contact tracing teams and circumstances which led to us being in the position we are now”.

Assistant Commissioner Peter Harvey told reporters he had been “asked by the Commissioner to conduct an investigation into the circumstances leading up to information provided to and utilised by SA Health in making decisions in relation to the impact of the directions have been issued”.

“We have a very strong belief that at least one person has not told the truth… the obligation on me is to investigate that further,” he said at the time.

It got curiouser and curiouser.

The pizza bar worker first came to authorities’ attention when they tested workers at every city medi-hotel – including the Stamford, where he worked in the kitchen.

And yet, Taskforce Protect spent its first days of operation reviewing hundreds of hours of CCTV from the Peppers medi-hotel – where there’d been no suggestion he’d worked.

This, again, was largely unexplained – certainly not by the taskforce’s publicly-stated brief.

It’s possible, of course, that they’re looking into all kinds of other stuff. We just don’t know.

Notably, when authorities accused that other guy this week of breaching quarantine, that didn’t seem to be a matter worth getting our 20 top detectives on the case for. Maybe it’s just when there’s a lockdown involved?

It’s possible too that they’re following leads that will open up other avenues of inquiry, or even unrelated charges against third parties – which Harvey hasn’t ruled out.

But even if they do – it seems highly unlikely that this would be particularly pertinent to getting on top of SA’s current public health emergency.

And far more likely, on available evidence, that someone just wanted this Spanish dude to be held accountable to a baying public.

It’s entirely arguable, too, that the response has made it less likely than more that someone in a similar position in future will be forthcoming with genuine information.

The episode might have also thrown up another question: whether there should have been more consideration – long ago –  as to whether the prolonged emergency declaration might be conducive to a potential blurring of roles and responsibilities for the police commissioner.

The inquiry, after all, would always be seen through the prism of the Premier’s public and entirely intemperate comments about wanting to throw the book at the unfortunate Spaniard.

Of course, the police and government operate at arm’s length – however, for the duration of this current crisis, the police commissioner effectively sits at the top of the government tree – by dint of also being the state’s emergency co-ordinator. The man who signed off on the statewide lockdown.

And the man directing SAPOL to undertake an investigation publicly stated as an exercise in assessing whether a crime has been committed – by someone the Commissioner had already declared had misled authorities and prompted the ‘pause’.

As Steven Marshall would say: let me be clear.

The South Australian response to the COVID-19 pandemic has rightly given authorities some leeway for making controversial decisions and offering seemingly nonsensical explanations.

We have had it, comparatively, not just good but great in our COVID-safe bubble.

We’ve spent the best part of 2020 feeling like we live in the safest place on planet earth, and when things go wrong our public health officials are wheeled out like well-credentialled Play School presenters to calmly reassure us that all is well.

But one could now be forgiven for getting the sense that we won the war, only to lose the peace.

SA’s response to the first COVID wave was textbook – if a textbook yet existed – but, faced with our first serious challenge since, there are significant questions going unanswered.

Because quite clearly, things have not all gone well.

This may be simply because of that sneaky old virus being so difficult to contain, but the thing is… we don’t know.

The Health Minister, by his own admission, hasn’t read a major report into Victoria’s medi-hotel failures, and we continue to utilise – and defend – systems that that state now concedes were unwise.

In the first week after the Parafield cluster emerged, we were consistently told we were awaiting national advice before making any changes to our medi-hotel regime – but then last week went ahead and made other major changes entirely unilaterally.

The problem is, the second the media ask a single question beyond the most rudimentary inquiry into any of this, we’re collectively – if not individually – accused of embarking on a “witch-hunt” or playing the “blame-game”.

So, as Marshall would say, let’s just be clear.

No serious journalist could care less which underling in the bureaucracy was the conduit for some piece of misinformation.

No-one is remotely interested in outing some poor contract tracer for trying to do his or her job in a crisis.

No-one wants anyone’s proverbial head to roll, or for anyone to stand down or be disciplined.

Any and every inquiry into any of these matters is, and should be, entirely about ascertaining that our public health systems are working as well as they can and should be.

And it’s hard to conclude from recent days that this is the case.

Despite sitting on our high horses for much of 2020, SA is very much behind the pack in rolling out QR code technology – technology Marshall declared today will “give contact tracers the very best information”.

If we’d managed to roll it out sooner, the past three weeks might have played out very differently – but it’s clearly far easier to blame a Spanish guy for “lying” than ourselves for dragging the chain.

Even though if that technology was available a couple of weeks ago, finding out who’d been to the Woodville Pizza Bar would have been exponentially easier.

Even today’s rollout seemed almost comically bureaucratic: as of this morning the iPhone version of the State Government’s app wasn’t available to download – because, as Spurrier explained, “Apple doesn’t sit within Australia”.

“I know people were trying to get hold of the executives in America, but unfortunately they were asleep,” she went on.

“So we’re waiting for California to wake up, and hopefully that will be in place this afternoon.”

At the time she said this it was approaching 4pm in California.

Apparently Tim Apple, as Trump dubbed him, enjoys a good sleep-in.

But surely we’re not so disorganised that we can’t get a public safety app installed on the Apple store outside of international business hours?


We were also, rather incredibly, told today of another COVID case, unrelated to the cluster, that authorities simply forgot to mention publicly two weeks ago, because “we’ve been so busy with the Parafield cluster that we didn’t add a case to our list”.

Spurrier blamed a decision to change SA health’s cut-off time for reporting cases for the oversight, which she mentioned today “just for completeness”.

That’s on the back of two occasions in the past fortnight that the wrong number of new cases was given at the daily briefing – which suggests this evidently fallible method of disseminating statistical information might not be the most failsafe approach.

But all of these are minor quibbles: they simply reinforce the fact that things can go wrong, and when they do there is often scant explanation.

The overriding concern is that we still don’t know what caused the virus to breach the confines of the Peppers medi-hotel – and in the short-term. we’re relying on our health authorities to provide their own audit.

Marshall has indicated there will be a separate, broader inquiry into SA’s overall COVID response – which will be established sometime after the pandemic subsides.

Which frankly, to quote Blackadder again, is a bit like a broken pencil: pointless.

An inquiry that will tell us how to deal with the COVID pandemic, after the pandemic is over?

Haven’t seen it, but I’m guessing that’s straight out of Utopia.

Of course, nobody expects perfect responses in all of this.

Nobody even expects consistent responses.

But we should at least be able to expect that the responses make some objective sense.

It only strengthens the case for an urgent and truly independent inquiry into the whole episode – not to assign blame, but to ensure that our COVID responses are as robust as they should be.

And if they are already, then the authorities should have nothing to fear by allowing it to proceed, should they?

After all, as we’re constantly told, we’re dealing with a sneaky virus.

We shouldn’t have to deal with sneaky rhetoric as well.

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