Monday, April 27, 2020

Coronavirus: We’re paying a high price for saving not many lives

The most absurd document published by an Australian government in recent times must be from Victoria’s Health and Human Services Department, which claimed 36,000 Victorians would have died from COVID-19 without the tough lockdowns brought in by Premier Daniel Andrews.

I understand governments, having made very costly interventions, have a strong incentive to “prove” how necessary they were. But surely the department could have been less ridiculous than claiming more than 0.5 per cent of the state’s entire population would have died? That’s far worse than anything Italy, Spain or New York has experienced so far. That’s a much greater share of Australians left dead than the vastly more lethal Spanish flu managed a century ago (0.28 per cent, according to recent research by Harvard economists), when doctors didn’t even have antibiotics.

Sweden, with a population half as large again as Victoria’s, has endured a little over 2000 deaths, and it has not imposed stage three lockdowns. Its cafes and bars have stayed open, with limited ­capacity.

“Some 36,000 Victorians would have died,” the 10-page analysis warns. “We have acted early and decisively to avoid catastrophic outcomes.”

New Zealand, which has become the poster child for fans of tough lockdown, now has 17 deaths attributed to COVID-19 — more than Australia, where states have gone nowhere near as far, adjusted for population.

Based on the simplistic Victorian analysis, Japan, South Korea and Sweden, which haven’t gone into lockdowns along Victorian lines, can expect deaths of 635,000, 256,000 and 51,500. These ­nations, all flirting with “catastrophe” according to Victoria, have respective death tolls so far of 330, 240 and 2021.

Garbage in, garbage out.

“Currently, the estimated Reff (the number of people an infected person will infect) in Victoria is 0.5; if Reff is kept below 1, an outbreak will slowly wane,” the Victorian analysis says.

Remarkably, analysis presented by Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy on Friday, based on an analysis of actual infection trends, estimated that the Reff was below 1 in every state and territory before the stage three lockdowns took effect late last month. In other words, the virus was waning in response to stage one and two restrictions (which caused much less economic damage) already.

However many lives the more onerous restrictions have saved, the cost is looking enormous and far more than we typically spend to save lives. If we’d followed the Swedish trajectory we might, crudely, have an extra 4500 fatalities by now (our population is 2½ times the size).

For the federal government alone, that works out at $48m per life saved, given the $214bn in budgeted federal assistance.

That’s more than 10 times the conventional estimate for the statistical value of a human life — “how much society is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death” — according to a 2014 federal government document from the Office of Best Practice Regulation.

And that’s only the raw cost to taxpayers of saving the life, not the bigger social and economic costs flowing from economic shutdown to slow the coronavirus.

Even if deaths mount considerably, as they are likely to, the excess focus on preventing COVID-19 deaths, as opposed to the 3000 other deaths a week in Australia, is likely to remain.

Ben Mol, a professor of obstetrics at Monash University, and Jonathan Karnon, a professor at Flinders University Medical Institute, argue what matters is life years saved, not lives per se. The median age of death from COVID-19 has been around 80 in Sweden and Australia.

This suggests an even greater over-reaction. “Assuming a willingness to pay $70,000 per life year saved, then Australia would, from a rational perspective, be prepared to pay not more than $3.8bn to justify the gained life years,” they tell Inquirer.

That’s about 1.2 per cent of the $320bn the government and Reserve Bank intend to spend to counteract stage three lockdowns, for which there’s no evidence.

“Non-emergency healthcare has stopped, resulting in significantly fewer people presenting with acute heart problems, stroke and other serious illnesses, which is causing unnecessary deaths. Some cancer screening has also ceased,” the two doctors say.

“Sweden is saving the 50-year-old from dying from cancer, stroke or a heart attack, while Australia saves the 79-year-old to die from COVID-19 at an economic cost which is a multiple of what we would normally allow in health care. We all wish we could save both, but that bid is not on the table,” they add.

To be sure, Sweden’s economy, heavily linked to the rest of Europe, still more or less in lockdown, has been hit hard, but its businesses have a greater chance of hanging on. Its jobless rate is expected to rise from about 7 per cent to 10 per cent, a far smaller increase than is expected here.

And people can still sit in the park, swim at the local pool and meet friends for dinner — which, while hard to put a dollar figure on, must be worth something.

Sweden refutes the idea that everyone would be cowering in their home even without severe restrictions. After all, in Europe 5 per cent of deaths from coronavirus are under-60s, and swathes of the population have it already.

Sweden won’t have to borrow as much, either: according to the International Monetary Fund, Australia’s stimulus effort — the biggest in the world — amounts to 10.6 per cent of gross domestic product; Sweden’s is 2.2 per cent.

The crisis has created an opportunity for extremists to remodel society with a much larger role for government, as former treasurer Peter Costello warned this week. Calls to permanently lift taxes, turn the JobKeeper payment into a universal basic income and nationalise swathes of the economy have grown louder.

The health sector unions and doctors will probably use the virus as leverage to obtain pay increases, even though only 43 people were in intensive care as of Friday because of coronavirus. Others simply enjoy seeing the growth of state control. After World War II, businesses that benefited from controls ­wanted to keep things as they were.

“No Australian wants to see hundreds of Australians dying a day of coronavirus,” Murphy said yesterday. No one does, but we need to be aware of the costs of saving some lives over others. Sadly, resources are limited.

We must ask whether we’re prepared to pay similar sums to save individual lives in the future. From the health sector’s standpoint, taxpayers can never spend too much on health. On April 1, Victoria ordered an extra 4000 intensive care beds (from existing capacity of 450), 551 million gloves and 100 million masks and 14.5 million gowns at a cost of about $2.5bn. Only 20 ­people were in an intensive care unit in Victoria yesterday from coronavirus.

When pandemic best-practice guides are written in coming years, having a well-resourced health system is likely to figure more highly than shutting down swathes of the economy. We might not be able to afford another response like this.


Queensland and Western Australia to lift some social distancing restrictions

As Australia successfully flattens the coronavirus curve, some states have decided to cautiously relax restrictions.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced some of the state's strict isolation measures would be relaxed on Saturday, May 2.

Speaking with reporters Sunday, Ms Palaszczuk said Queenslanders would be able to shop for non-essential items, go driving and have picnics.

They will also be allowed to meet with people not from their households and travel within 50km of their home.

Western Australian Premier Mack McGowan followed suit, announcing today that it would relax the two-person limit on indoor and outdoor gatherings from tomorrow, Monday, April 27. Up to 10 people will be allowed to gather for non-work activities, as the state recorded another day of no new COVID-19 cases.

The Premier stressed the changes were minor and that if Queenslanders did not act sensibly, the restrictions would be enforced again.

"I know these sound like strict rules, everyone, but we are in different times and I'm trying to be flexible and listen to what the public is saying," she said.

“So, if you are over 65 or over 70, and I know it’s really difficult for people being at home for long extended periods of time, I would suggest going for a drive during the week, Monday-Friday. Because on the weekends, it’s family time, and you won’t be in contact with children who are either being home schooled or the children of essential workers who are at school.”

She also explained that families would be able to have picnics, or if you are single, you can go with one other person.

“You will be able to go shopping for non-essential items like clothes and shoes. So at the moment, people are going out for essential items like going to the pharmacy and going to the grocery store,” she said. “Well, you will now be able to go to get a pair of shoes or to get a new shirt.

“But once again, we don’t want you spending hours in those shopping areas. It’s about making your list and going there, getting what you need and then coming home.

“Also, you’ll be able to go to national parks. We’ll be reopening our national parks, but the day use areas will not be open, nor will the toilets.”

Queensland was the first Australian state to relax COVID-19 restrictions after recording just three new cases of coronavirus on Saturday.

Here is what you need to know about Queensland’s plans.


 * It starts 11.59pm Friday, so effectively people will be free to move around on Saturday onwards for recreational purposes.


 * Travel has been restricted to 50km from your place of residence to prevent mass movement of people between cities and towns.


 * Definitely not. Social distancing of 1.5m and hygiene must be maintained and if it’s not adhered to, stay-at-home restrictions could return.

 * All other rules on gatherings, including limitations on the number of people who can visit a household, remain in place


 * Only members of the same household are permitted to gather in public, so it’s not a chance to party in a park.


 * You’re allowed to go for a drive for up to 50km from your home

 * You’re permitted to ride a motorbike, jetski or even spend time on a boat for pleasure

 * Shopping for non-essential items is also allowed but it does not mean the business you are visiting will be allowed to open

 * You can have a picnic with a family or visit a national park but be mindful toilet facilities will NOT be open.

 * The Queensland Government will review COVID-19 restrictions again in a fortnight.


Coalition is aiming to change Australia's environment laws before review is finished

The environment minister, Sussan Ley, has flagged the government may change Australia’s national environment laws before a review is finished later this year.

Ley said she would introduce “early pieces of legislation” to parliament if she could to “really get moving with reforming and revitalising one of our signature pieces of environmental legislation”.

It follows business groups and the government emphasising the need to cut red tape as part of the economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis, and comes as the businessman Graeme Samuel chairs an independent statutory review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. An interim report is due in June, followed by a final report in October.

When the review was announced, the government said it would be used to “tackle green tape” and speed up project approvals.
Conservation plans help boost threatened mammals, scientists find

Environmental organisations have stressed the need for tougher environmental protections to stem Australia’s high rate of extinction. Australia has lost more than 50 animal and 60 plant species in the past 200 years and recorded the highest rate of mammalian extinction in the world over that period.

Ley said, with the interim report due by the middle of the year, she expected Samuel would “in the course of the review, identify a range of measures that we can take to prevent unnecessary delays and improve environmental standards”.

“Where there are opportunities to make sensible changes ahead of the final EPBC review report, I will be prepared to do so,” she said.

On Thursday, Ley and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said work was already under way to speed up environmental assessments of projects and that the number of on time “key decisions” in the EPBC process had improved from 19% in the December quarter to 87% in the March quarter.

An environment department spokesman said key decisions covered three items in the assessment process: the decision on whether a project requires assessment under the act, the decision on what assessment method will be used, and the final decision on whether or not to approve the project.

“For the December quarter 2019, the Department met 19% of the 80 key decisions due that quarter. This increased to meeting the statutory timeframes for 87% of the 61 key decisions due in the March quarter 2020,” he said.

The environment department also publishes annual data on the percentage of EPBC-related decisions that are made on time. This data covers several types of decisions in the assessment process, not just the final approval of a project.
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In the 2018-19 financial year, 60% of decisions were made on time.

But it is not just project assessments that are subject to delays. Species assessments and recovery planning timeframes have also become longer in recent years.

Brendan Sydes, the chief executive of Environmental Justice Australia, said there was nothing preventing the government from making changes to the act before the review was complete. But he said it would be “a bit strange to act on draft recommendations rather than the final report”.

“Clearly the draft will be the first opportunity people have to scrutinise or see what the Samuel review is likely to recommend,” Sydes said.

He said the review was about more than just streamlining the act and there were other important priorities, including improving protections for threatened species.

“It really ought to be treated as a comprehensive package of reform if there are to be reforms after the review,” he said.

“No one opposes the act being as efficient and effective as possible but we really need to have a focus on the objectives the act is attempting to achieve, rather than streamlining and processes.”

David Morris, the chief executive of the Environmental Defenders Office, said there could be instances where it was sensible to propose legislative changes before the review was complete, but it would depend on what was being proposed. “We’re supportive of sensible changes to legislation,” he said.

But he added the government “would want to avoid any perception that they were making poor environmental decisions and then fast-tracking those at a time when people are distracted by a major pandemic”.

Amelia Young, the national campaigns director for The Wilderness Society, warned against the idea that cutting environmental protections could act as an economic stimulus measure once Covid-19 restrictions are eased.

“Weaker environmental protections and fast-tracked infrastructure approvals are not part of a safe and positive future for Australia as we recover from the coronavirus challenge,” she said.

Young said many Coalition MPs had shown concern over the suffering and loss of wildlife during the bushfire season and were aware of heightened environmental concern in the community.

“Many government MPs met with our local membership groups and discussed the issue at length. These MPs well know that there is huge community support towards better protecting Australia’s natural environment,” she said.


'The risk is in the staff room, not the classroom': Scott Morrison takes a swipe at teachers' complaining about going back to work - telling them they are no different to supermarket staff and bus drivers

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has criticised the teachers' unions for protesting the return to classrooms.

Mr Morrison has urged states to urgently reopen schools on advice from Australia's top health adviser - saying that students do not pose a risk of spreading coronavirus.

But Mr Morrison’s insistence that classrooms are safe has drawn mixed reactions, with some unions threatening to stand firm against returning to normal operations.

In some states, teachers' unions have continued to urge families not to send children to school.

'I mean, we’ve got people who are going to work in supermarkets every day,' Mr Morrison told Sky News.

'We’ve got people who are doing jobs all over the community, driving buses, and they’re doing great work and they’re turning up to work to do those things.'

Mr Morrison said the risk for teachers was 'not in the classroom; their risk is in the staffroom'.

There is mounting evidence to back the medical advice that children are less prone to catching and spreading COVID-19.

Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said NSW Health has done a large study including testing children with no virus symptoms and found no evidence they were transmitting the disease.

'This is quite different from influenza, where we know they are sometimes super-spreaders and can spread the virus,' he told reporters on Friday.

'Most children who have contracted the virus in Australia have contracted it in the family home ... not contracted it in the school environment.'

The health advice says appropriate workplace safety measures should be taken to protect teachers, including cleaning door handles, desks, computers, hand-rails and playground equipment several times a day.

The advice also says classroom furniture should leave as much space between students as possible and children should be encouraged to keep 1.5m apart from others when entering classrooms or during break times.

Teachers have been told to keep 1.5m apart from each other in staff rooms, but Scott Morrison said the measure does not apply to students in classrooms.

'The four square metre rule and the 1.5m distancing between students during classroom activities is not appropriate and not required. I can't be more clear than that,' he told reporters.

Mr Morrison also emphasised there was no requirement for minimum floor space per person, unlike other enclosed areas such as shops.

However, unions have slammed the Prime Minister's advice as contradictory, and are adamant social distancing measures are vital to ensure the safety of their members.

In a statement, the Australian Education Union said the social distancing guidelines 'provide little clarity about how governments are going to ensure a safe working environment for teachers, principals and support staff'.

'It is still not clear how governments expect schools to manage social distancing for adults. It is contradictory to have one set of rules for adults outside of the school gate and another inside,' the union's federal president Correna Haythorpe said.

They also hold concerns the requirements around regular cleaning and making sure soap or hand sanitiser is freely available are not being met.

Queensland Teachers Union president Kevin Bates indicated he was open to observing the government's notion to gradually reopen classrooms, but more information was needed on why schools are exempt from the 4sqm rule.

The QTU will consult with the state government and examine the findings of the NSW study on Monday. 

The Queensland government will review its decision to close classrooms to all students other than those from families of essential workers and vulnerable children on May 15.

In Victoria, all students are encouraged to learn from home for term two, but schools will remain open for vulnerable children and children of essential workers.

AEU Victorian president Meredith Peace slammed Mr Scott Morrison's directive.

'It is ­bizarre that the Prime Minister has been ­telling us for six weeks how important social distancing is but today he has basically said that it no longer matters for students or teachers,' she said, The Australian reports.

'Throughout this pandemic we’ve been worried that many seem to be neglecting the health and safety of teachers, and these comments only reinforce that. While we’re as keen as anyone to return to normal life, including a return to school, we must plan that return carefully to ensure the ­safety of both staff and students.' 

In a full-page newspaper advertisement published on Friday, the State School Teachers' Union of WA urged parents too keep their children home if possible - against the government's advice.

The union made reference to physical distancing guidelines issued by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, claiming they can be adhered to when schools have limited numbers 'but not when they are full'.

Education Minister Sue Ellery condemned the advertisement as 'misleading'. 'The AHPPC advice has been from the beginning, and is now, that because of the low risk of transmission, schools are safe for staff and students and should stay open,' she told 6PR radio.

'There is reference to distancing but it's about very specific things.'

In Western Australia, classes will open for all government school students from Wednesday but attendance will not be enforced.

SSTUWA president Pat Byrne later issued a statement claiming the union's position was 'consistent with the state government's approach'.

'Teachers support the managed return of face-to-face teaching, as part of an approach which is consistent with the gradual easing of school distancing requirements by government,' it said.

'Support them by keeping your kids home if you can - then we can make schools as safe as possible until we can all be back at school together.'

NSW schools are due to return for one day a week from May 11, the third week of term two, with a gradual progression to full-time learning as restrictions are eased.

South Australian students will ­return to school next week.

The school debate runs alongside other government initiatives to relax COVID-19 restrictions.

On Friday, the national cabinet ­released ten principles to make workplaces safe, and is focusing on strategies to get people back playing sport.


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

1 comment:

Paul said...

I hope health workers don't over-internalise the "we're so special" mindset that has characterised teachers for so long now.