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The contrasting fortunes of England and Australia during the Covid-19 pandemic are stark. The UK passed 100,000 deaths at the end of January, whereas Australia, where life has largely returned to normal, has lost fewer than 1,000 people. The economic prospects of the two countries differ markedly.
Just as stark, unsurprisingly, is the contrast in government actions that brought each country to this point. Like New Zealand, Australia was able to largely isolate itself from international travel, but it went further than that. Internal state borders were closed for the first time in more than 100 years. New outbreaks were contained by sudden border closures – to the displeasure of holidaymakers, but effective in suppressing infections. As in the city of Perth this week, rapid lockdowns have been used during outbreaks – even where only one case was found – in different states, cities or local government areas.
In England, the Johnson government’s approach was the opposite of the “go hard, go early” strategy adopted in New Zealand and the Australian states and territories. Expert advice was ignored and prevarication characterised responses in October and before Christmas. Accordingly, the Lowy Institute ranked Australia’s pandemic response as the eighth best in the world, and placed the UK 66th.
This raises the obvious question: what happened? What was it about the political handling of the pandemic that produced such dramatically different outcomes?
One feature of the Australian state of Victoria’s lockdowns was the clarity of messaging from the state government. Premier Daniel Andrew’s now legendary “That doesn’t mean you can have your mates round your home and get on the beers” should be contrasted with the sophistry of the UK’s “eat out to help out” and what counted as a “substantial meal” that qualified you to go to a pub in some areas of England but not others. Similarly the 5km radius permitted to Melburnians during the second lockdown should be contrasted with the injunction to only travel within “your local area” in England (interpret as you will).
Add to the clarity of messaging, clarity of responsibility. The implementation of health policy quickly fell largely to the Australian states and territories which have considerably smaller populations than England’s 56m. By being able to isolate smaller populations and restrict internal travel, Australian federalism fared better than the UK’s asymmetric devolved system of governance. In this system, which emerged as an ad hoc response to differing pressures for constitutional reform in the 1990s, England’s government essentially remains the UK’s government, where the centre remains powerful in contrast to the austerity-depleted boroughs and counties.
Leadership matters too. Boris Johnson’s leadership was forged in the crucible of Brexit politics. As someone already given to overly optimistic prognoses, any response from the newly minted “Global Britain” had to be, in his words, “world-beating”. It would be hard for any response to match this criterion, but most of the government’s responses in England fell well short of this unnecessarily high benchmark. Australian governments acted with alacrity when relatively small numbers of infections threatened to spread, even briefly closing the borders with New Zealand when that country registered a single case of community-transmitted Covid. Contrast this with Johnson’s disdain for expert advice at the onset of each wave, despite his own severe illness in April. Delegitimising expertise was a tactic in the Brexit strategy and this disdain carried over into the politics of the pandemic.
And leadership affects trust. Trust in government is a crucial element in the pandemic response. Trust in government rose in Australia during the pandemic, having been low for most of the 2010s. There was nothing comparable to the “Cummings effect” to undermine trust. In that case, a top Johnson adviser, Dominic Cummings, was caught out flouting lockdown rules. The absence of an immediate apology and resignation was found to have eroded trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic.
If trust in government is important then trust in each other is also crucial. The situation in Australia stands out in this regard not only with the UK, but also the United States and France, where recent politics of the Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron eras have eroded collective trust. Although Australia has some bruising political issues, particularly climate change, its anti-lockdown protests were small. Importantly it does not have anything as divisive as the politics of Brexit was across the UK and within England. The wash-up of recent British politics means that the people who brought you Brexit now bring you the pandemic response; not a situation likely to instil confidence in the UK government among remainers.
And then there is ideology. The pandemic deepened the inversion of political normality that the populist push of the 2010s began. Rightwing governments in Australia and the UK adopted policies of welfare support and state spending that would have warmed the hearts of Chifley and Attlee. Yet there were important continuities. State Labor governments in Australia seemed more comfortable with intervention than their Liberal-National counterparts. Border closures between states were endorsed by the ALP’s election win in Queensland.
But England was and is governed by people who believe in minimal government interference. No amount of clapping NHS staff or linking the pandemic to “spirit of the Blitz” (as opposed to its death toll) could paper over the contending ideologies shaping government decision-making.
This is not a cause for complacency in Australia. Other countries have managed better. Perhaps the “tyranny of distance” has become an asset at last. What comparative analysis shows is that the politics preceding the pandemic shaped decision-making (or its absence) and that acting quickly on expert advice saves lives.
• Dr Ben Wellings is the head of politics and international relations at Monash University in Australia
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Decisive leadership, rapid action and trust: the differences between Australia and the UK’s Covid responses | Coronavirus