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Everyone needs to learn quickly from Victoria’s mistakes

Yet the Victorian Premier is untouchable to some. Andrews never claims this second wave started in Canberra, but his defenders are quick to shift the blame to others. They search for excuses. Their spotlight usually lands on Scott Morrison.

That was fair enough, perhaps, in months gone by. The Prime Minister has made his share of mistakes. But the tactics are wearing thin when no other state or territory is suffering like Victoria.

Andrews is smart, dedicated and solid. He is earnest about stopping the pandemic and working all hours to get this done. And he goes hard when needed: his campaign with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian pushed Morrison into tougher economic shutdowns on March 22. This was the right call.

But this pandemic takes no prisoners. Everyone is accountable. The fact Andrews got it right in March only makes it more alarming he got it so wrong in July. Laying blame is not a pointless exercise. It is an essential one.

Everyone needs to learn quickly from Victoria’s mistakes, and that means nobody should be fooled into thinking Andrews has not made them or presided over them.

What happened in the aged care sector is becoming clear. With infections spreading through the St Basil’s home in Fawkner, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services issued an order on Wednesday of last week, July 21, for more than 100 staff to stay at home.

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The Victorian officials expected the federal government to keep the centre going. Federal officials hired contractors from Aspen Medical but the sheer speed led to problems with care. This was why some residents were found in soiled sheets.

Where else could staff be found so urgently? Secretary of the federal Department of Health and Ageing Brendan Murphy makes a fundamental point: hospitals and aged care share one workforce. There is no spare one in Canberra.

Murphy had asked Victorian officials on July 15 about suspending elective surgery to free up staff. He was more formal late last week in telling the deputy secretary of the DHHS that this should happen.

Murphy spoke to his Victorian counterparts again on Sunday. By Monday, the state officials were working with private hospitals on how to suspend the surgery. Morrison, seeing no action, texted Andrews at 9:30 am on Monday and the same time on Tuesday to press him to move more quickly. Andrews made the announcement two hours later, but his advisers say he did not need the Tuesday reminder to move.

The eagerness to defend Andrews leads to infantile arguments like blaming Morrison for hotel quarantine because border control is his job.

Here is one essential fact: the national cabinet agreement on March 27 made it clear the states would run the quarantine hotels. Security was their role.

The problem was not the federation, or the overlapping responsibilities between Canberra and the states, or the lack of support from Morrison. The agreement offered personnel from the Australian Defence Force to support police with quarantine compliance.

Andrews chose not to use the ADF when the idea came up on June 24 in an email later leaked. Only on July 14 did he announce 1000 ADF personnel would be deployed. And what happened between those two dates? The number of active coronavirus cases in Victoria rose from 141 to 1803.

The problem was all in the execution – in hiring security companies to do the work and not policing it properly.

Morrison, of course, has no escape from a different set of unforgiving numbers. While unemployment surges, he asks Australians to wait until October for more fiscal stimulus. His fate turns on the unemployment rate at the next election.

And Morrison’s mistakes are no secret. He banned travel from China in January but did not do the same for the United States until late March. His government shares responsibility with NSW for every infection from the Ruby Princess. He had objected to state border closures before the checkpoints at the Victorian border became essential.

Accountability means the federal government has to explain why it did not do more to prepare aged care operators – which it funds and regulates – for the sudden withdrawal of infected workers. A coalition of seven industry groups called for a “workforce fund” to do exactly this in April.

The great shame of the blame game is that all leaders should have done more when the sun was shining, in that golden period in early June when active case numbers fell to 380 nationwide. But nobody gets a leave pass. The idea that Andrews can outsource responsibility to Morrison is ludicrous. Andrews never makes such a claim in public, but it is revealing how often his supporters resort to the trick.

Andrews suggested on Thursday that the second wave is yet to peak. If that forecast is accurate, all premiers need to act on the assumption they will see the same misery in their own states.

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Morrison needs to help them prepare. This means offering paid pandemic leave in aged care, getting ready to suspend elective surgery and preparing hospital staff to relieve infected workers. It means faster federal action to intervene when an aged care operator fails. In short, it means learning from Victoria’s mistakes.

Nothing changes if a state government and its partisans can simply blame Canberra. In this pandemic, blame-shifting and complacency go hand in hand.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent.

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