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Richardson: When public health messaging fails, 'It's complicated' doesn't wash

Opinion

It seems reductive now – with 1.7 million deaths worldwide linked to COVID, with almost one in 100 US residents contracting the disease in the past fortnight alone – to recall a single death.

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But one that told me ‘shit just got real’ a while back was the death in April of former Goodie Tim Brooke-Taylor.

I thought of him again this week as I recalled one of his lines that still makes me chuckle (which, given the show in general hasn’t aged well, is one of a select few).

After a tardy delivery derails their grand plans to break into radio, the Goodies are fuming about Britain’s General Post Office service, when Bill Oddie observes: “Look, be fair: I think the GPO has a very difficult job to do.”

“Exactly,” Tim concurs. “That’s why they do it so badly.”

This line occurred to me, of course, amid SA’s governing authorities’ regular observation that they are dealing with a very tough set of circumstances.

Which, undoubtedly, they are.

But on a few occasions of late, they’re not dealing with them particularly deftly.

We know, of course, that they’re working diligently and hard.

We know they are, indeed, the goodies.

We know that because of their generally excellent results, but we also know it because Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier frequently tells us so.

“While you were all at home sleeping, we were working hard,” was a theme on which we heard several variations throughout the recent Parafield cluster.

Look, one doesn’t want to complain too much.

Our general forecast for much of this year has been ‘COVID-free with a touch of smug’, and even last month’s misstep – complete with strange, aborted lockdown – was over almost as suddenly as it began.

But it’s time to acknowledge a couple of things.

First, that constant Government refrain that whatever happens, we’ll be “relying on the Health advice” clearly requires a caveat: “*unless we don’t want to”.

And second, at times SA’s much-lauded pandemic response has been handled so haphazardly one can’t help but suspect the secret to our peculiar success is not merely expertise but genuine luck.

Since last month’s cluster we’ve seen several instances of SAPOL and SA Health failing to sing from the same songsheet.

Which, of course, is fine if they can still collectively carry the tune – as when Grant Stevens overruled the advice of Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier to immediately relax density caps on hospitality venues to one person per two-square-metres, or when he opted to withdraw border checks without even running it past her.

But while both agencies insist that they’re working harmoniously, their clearly very different approaches are sometimes creating genuine confusion.

Case in point: last month’s lockdown.

While SAPOL still insists the aborted stay-at-home order wouldn’t have happened if not for a Spaniard on a graduate visa misleading contract tracers, health authorities have since insisted it was all part of the plan.

They even proved it by showing a chart that curved upwards in an ominous fashion, so we’ll obviously give them the benefit of the doubt.

But there was no such justification for this week’s border SNAFU, which saw long-awaited family reunions shattered by an over-officious interpretation of new border controls that ignored the one caveat unambiguously uttered by Premier Steven Marshall when he announced them.

That they were, as Wilson Pickett once said, gonna wait till the midnight hour.

But when hundreds of travellers consequently descended on SA from Sydney, where a new COVID cluster was busily wrecking Christmas plans – many were told they’d have to either quarantine of turn back – even though they arrived well before midnight.

In a surefire sign that the cogs were turning seamlessly, this epic fail wasn’t even picked up till it affected some of the Police Commissioner’s mates, who helpfully let the acting emergency coordinator know that scenes were unfolding at Adelaide Airport reminiscent of the day Compass Airlines was grounded in 1991: coincidentally also on December 20 at around 9pm, and similarly ruining masses of Christmas travel plans.

“We obviously regret the inconvenience and disruption that this has caused people who were affected by the incorrect advice provided to our checkpoint teams, but it’s important to point out the steps we take are done in the interests of protecting the South Australian community,” Stevens told a press conference yesterday.

He said he pointed out the erroneous interpretation around 9.30pm and all proceeded relatively smoothly from there.

This doesn’t explain, however, why the state’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, Mike Cusack, went on ABC radio yesterday morning – and absolutely insisted that anyone who’d arrived from Greater Sydney before midnight should now be in quarantine.

“From a health perspective, they do need to remain in quarantine,” he said, pointing out that “the virus is not a respecter of the 24-hour clock” and noting “I don’t think it will recognise a hard cut-off in terms of ‘if you came in just to prior to midnight you’re unlikely to carry infection with you, but if you’ve come in just after then you are at risk’”.

“Clearly I do appreciate that this will impact upon people and their families and their Christmas plans,” he noted.

Stevens was quick to dispel this version of event but, asked later how one of the state’s top officials in the fight against COVID had got it so wrong, he said: “You will have to ask him that.”

It’s worth noting that by this point Cusack wasn’t on hand to answer any more questions.

But the answer was almost worryingly casual.

After all, it’s not like Cusack just took it upon himself to call up a radio station and offer his two cents.

It’s not like he was doorstopped against his will by an insistent camera crew as he left for work and just said the first thing that popped into his head.

And it’s not like he’s just some guy with an opinion.

The guy was, in fact, put up as the Government’s authority on the matter to answer questions about what went wrong at Adelaide Airport the previous evening.

Surely in such a situation these people go through some kind of briefing before they do the radio rounds?

Perhaps avail themselves of the most basic facts about what they’ll be talking about?

For her part, Spurrier, to whom Cusack is 2IC, said she’d “spoken to” him but emphasised it was a complicated situation, inviting people to read the border travel direction for themselves to appreciate its vast complexity.

Sure, but the question of when it kicks in shouldn’t be complicated: they’d announced it at a press conference the previous day!

If every single person travelling across the border knew what the publicly-stated policy was, why didn’t the authorities tasked with processing them?

And why did one of the state’s most senior health officials still – apparently – not know what the policy was several hours later?

The thing is, among the most effective health responses in a crisis is to issue clear, concise directions.

Explaining away such a consequential blunder under the heading “it’s complicated” doesn’t exactly instil confidence.

“I’m sure everyone will forgive Dr Cusack for making that mistake earlier this morning,” said Spurrier, as though her deputy might have accidentally passed the port the wrong way at Christmas dinner or somesuch.

And I’m sure they will, but it’s not really the point – and goes to the heart of many of SA Health’s responses to media questions in general.

Of late, they’ve taken on the air of people assuming every question to be a critique or a witch-hunt, and thus answering them defensively – even evasively.

But generally, people ask questions because they’re simply seeking information.

And the transmission of information is becoming SA Health’s Achilles Heel as this COVID crisis progresses into its second calendar year.

I even felt genuinely disappointed this week to realise that my impending annual leave over the new year will correspond almost exactly with the ever-approachable Treasurer Rob Lucas’s tenure as acting Health Minister.

Just imagine having a health inquiry and being able to simply ask the person who can answer it and just get an answer. Pure luxury!

Don’t get me wrong: I know – of course I know – that our health authorities have a very difficult job to do.

It’s just that the more they try and tell us that, the more I can’t help but think of that line from the late, lamented Tim Brooke-Taylor.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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