With hindsight, the revelation that the Andrews government was warned by its own Health Department at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis that its front-line defence against a pandemic was in disrepair should have triggered a multitude of alarm bells. The story of how that reality led to Victoria being nearly overwhelmed by the virus, and the enormous effort to fortify the department while battling the second wave, is one that highlights the potential clash of transparency versus trust during a crisis.
Public trust in government has been an essential ingredient in containing the virus. Without it, the ability to enforce strict restrictions to contain outbreaks can become highly contentious. As political editor Peter Hartcher wrote at the weekend, taking a global perspective, those governments that have done best in managing the virus followed effective governance, centrist politics and scientific expertise that fortified public trust.
In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews knew he needed the public’s confidence in his ability to lead the state during the pandemic. His most overt effort to build that trust was fronting up before the media day after day, offering up the latest details and subjecting himself, at times, to hostile questioning. No matter what the issue, Mr Andrews wanted to convey the message that he was aware of the problems and that his government had them in hand.
Yet behind the scenes, as Age chief reporter Chip Le Grand revealed, while the number of positive infections was exploding after the breach of hotel quarantine, the effort to contain the virus was in disarray. And despite Mr Andrews’ assurances, the cracks were showing. Reports of long delays in testing and a lack of co-ordination in contact tracing became rife.