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Richardson: Govt needs to rethink COVID communication blackout  

Opinion

The Marshall Government insists this week’s COVID spike is an unremarkable impact of the border re-opening. But it needs to do more to stem a tide of anxiety, writes Tom Richardson.

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Former Liberal Premier Dean Brown copped a bit of flak back in the day when his government unveiled the state’s new slogan: “Going all the way!”

Evidently, when the line was workshopped, no-one thought to point out that the phrase chosen to underpin our collective journey out of the post-State Bank mire was a euphemism for having it off.

Likewise, I feel Steven Marshall’s opening gambit at yesterday’s media conference – the first expressly dedicated to the evolving COVID situation in more than a week – might have been more studiously workshopped ahead of delivery.

For, on a day when his predecessor as Premier was confined to Tom’s Court with COVID-19, the Governor and Opposition Leader were forced into quarantine and the entire parliament shut down for the morning as the state ticked over 30 new cases in the week since the borders opened, Marshall stood forthright and declared: “The first message I have for the people of South Australia is: we’ve got this!”

Hmm.

I can imagine Jay Weatherill watching on from his medi-hotel room thinking: “No kidding, mate!”

For yes, South Australia has, now, got this.

COVID, that is. From being virtually free, of late, of the virus that has ravaged the world for two years, we’ve made the decision to throw open our borders and let it in.

And, indeed, in it has come.

Which, as both Marshall and his chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier were at pains to point out yesterday, is all part of the plan – or at least a logical corollary of the plan.

You’ve got to give the Government some credit here: they must genuinely believe the current approach is both necessary and timely.

Because they’re genuinely risking being the first Liberal administration since Steele Hall’s to adopt a considered policy position knowing it could well send themselves into Opposition.

“It’s quite clear that we do have COVID in our state now, and not unexpectedly,” Spurrier told gathered reporters.

Gathered, indeed, in the limited confines of a parliament house foyer, where the media conference was held – which then saw the assembled journos berated for apparently inadequate social distancing, despite all wearing masks, in line with SA Health advice.

“I can see actually a lot of you journalists are really quite close in here today,” Spurrier chastised.

“I’d like to see you a bit more spread out.”

Over the two years of watching and covering COVID-related media conferences, I’ve noticed a couple of general trends in the approach – both of them, I’d guess, predicated on the fact that these gatherings are inevitably and widely broadcast live via an array of media and government platforms.

One, when a reporter is addressed by name, it’s often when they’re taking a tough or troublesome line of questioning.

And two, when the journos are told off for standing too close to each other, it’s a fair indication that the overall media conference isn’t travelling too well.

It is, I’d suggest, as much about firing up the government cheerleaders commenting online as it is about addressing social distancing concerns – let’s face it, if you were that worried, you’d have simply held the press conference a few feet away in the outdoor courtyard.

But it’s notable that the cheerleaders are not as vocal as they have been in months past.

And, indeed, that Government public health advice posted online lately tends to elicit fewer ‘love’ and ‘like’ emojis, and more ‘laughing’ and ‘angry’ face emojis instead.

Still, health authorities have had an odd relationship with the media throughout this pandemic.

Beyond favouring the dispersal of public health information via a particular outlet, News Corp, they’ve also been happy to allow the public to perceive a schism between the broader media and the state’s benevolent health authorities.

The general tenor of this has been, ‘don’t believe anything until you hear it from us’.

Which, in a health crisis, is fine – responsible, indeed.

Except that since the borders opened to the rest of the nation last week, we’ve hardly heard from them at all.

Whereas weeks ago, an errant truckie testing COVID-positive after spending a few hours in transit through SA would be enough to prompt a late-arvo media call, since Tuesday last week SA’s COVID cases have piled up, and all we’ve got from SA Health has been the obligatory daily email update with a bare minimum of detail.

Whereas the Government’s self-proclaimed ‘fab four’ – Marshall, Spurrier, Stevens and Health Minister Stephen Wade (evidently the Ringo of this particular group) – would previously front up for the morning radio rounds to forensically discuss the day’s issues, the last week has been veritable radio silence.

The reason for the shift in approach is clear, and it goes back to the Premier’s somewhat unfortunate opening phrase.

‘We’ve got this.’

It’s intended to send the message that new cases are nothing to worry about, it’s all part of the plan, it’s normal – keep calm and carry on Not Panicking.

But for many of the general public, now is not the time for health authorities to fade into the background.

Now is the time that regular reassurance is needed.

That explanation is required.

A CBD office closed yesterday because a staff member tested positive to COVID after returning from interstate at the weekend, and yet those impacted were confused to find no reference to the location on SA Health’s list of exposure sites.

Spurrier explained this yesterday – the list is not exhaustive; if it was, it would potentially end up as big as a phone book (and about as widely read these days).

It is designed, now, to highlight sites about which the broader public needs to be made aware.

But to clear up confusion such as this, someone needs to front up.

To alleviate mounting community anxiety, someone needs to front up.

Instead, we had a frenzy of daily activity until the borders opened – and then nothing.

One SMS respondent to ABC Radio Adelaide summed it up well: “I feel like the coach has been in my face all preseason – and on game day they haven’t shown up!”

And even when they do show up, the only thing that’s genuinely clear is that we can’t know what’s in front of us.

While Marshall and Spurrier insisted things were tracking as we might expect, state co-ordinator Grant Stevens was more candid.

“I wasn’t really sure when the first case would come or what it would look like,” he told reporters.

“I don’t think anybody was able to accurately forecast just what it would look like…

“I went into this current phase of our COVID response not knowing what it would look like… I probably was surprised that the first case popped up so quickly after the 23rd.”

Nonetheless, he insisted, with vaccination rates for people over 16 (now) over 80 per cent, “the bulk of our population is protected” so “it’s not going to put stress on out hospital system” – the key measure of this phase of the state’s pandemic response.

The modelling released last month “simulated the introduction of 20 COVID-positive cases per day for the first 30 days (ie 600 cases in total)” after the borders opened “to provide the conditions required for a COVID-19 epidemic”.

The state isn’t in those waters yet – but as of yesterday, we were swimming in that direction.

So it would be handy to still be able to see the lifeguard on the shore, and feel reassured that everything is in hand.

Even if it’s just to say that ‘we’ve got this’.

Because the days when we could smugly say we haven’t got it are clearly a thing of the past.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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