If something terrible happens on Friday night and you call an ambulance, how long will it take to arrive?
That’s not normally a concern for those of us living in the inner city, but this year ambulances have too often been unable to get to serious emergencies on time.
We all know why.
New COVID variants are surging through the community, knocking hospital and ambulance staff out of action while increasing their workload as more people get sick.
Today 739 people are in public hospitals with COVID, nurses are often working double shifts, and everyone is exhausted.
I was relieved to see this week the new health minister announce measures aimed at reducing spread of the virus, like more advertising encouraging COVID boosters, flu vaccines, wearing masks and improving ventilation of indoor spaces.
At last, after spending most of this year ignoring COVID community transmission, the government has begun to talk about the problem, and at least take small steps to fix it.
But is this really enough, or is it too little too late?
In a press release back in May I called for similar measures. Through June I continued urging the government to do more to curb community transmission, and I put it directly to the Premier in parliament. But until now, the government dismissed the idea that we should be doing more.
We will never know the full cost of the government’s failure to act earlier to prevent this winter crisis. But if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that the later we act, the more we have to do – and the longer it will take – to turn the ship around.
Now, in mid-July, ambulances are waiting for hours outside hospitals to unload patients. Surgery is being cancelled, waiting lists are growing, and we’re seeing as many COVID deaths every couple of weeks as we see in our annual road toll. There’s the much-feared long COVID, and illness is disrupting supply chains and all manner of goods and services.
Seeing this dire situation, I am concerned that the government has reportedly rejected advice from the acting Chief Health Officer to reintroduce mask mandates in retail, schools and childcare. However, it’s not totally clear what, specifically, the CHO’s advice was – we’ve just heard the minister’s summary.
That’s why yesterday I wrote to the Independent Pandemic Management Advisory Committee, asking them to review the Minister’s decision, and advise whether the CHO’s advice should be followed based on the state of the hospital system.
I’ll let you know if and when I hear back from them.
In the meantime, what more can the Government do?
None of us want lockdowns, mandates or fines, which often fall more heavily on the most vulnerable. And no one wants the serious disruption to businesses that we saw in previous lockdowns.
But if the government’s new measures fall short, and rising cases overwhelm the health system, the Health Minister will have no alternative but to introduce more restrictions.
That’s why, right now, short of imposing restrictions and mandates, the government should be rolling out every voluntary and incentive-based measure possible, to reduce community transmission.
A well-funded TAC-style campaign urging masks indoors and third and fourth vaccine doses is a good start. And ATAGI’s recent decision to make fourth COVID vaccine doses available to everyone over 30 is promising.
But beyond that, the government should seriously consider subsidising N95 masks and rapid antigen tests, and even offering financial incentives for vaccine booster doses.
Spending some money on these things and more, may prove a much better investment than trying to prop up a hospital system that is struggling to find staff, or compensating businesses for losses due to COVID restrictions.
What can we do as individuals?
- Get your next COVID or flu vaccine dose ASAP, if you’re due for one.
- Wear masks when mixing with people indoors outside the home – N95 if you can get one.
- Encourage bars, gyms, restaurants and other venues to buy air purifiers.
- If you’re having a function in Brunswick which will put people together in a room, particularly if there’s food or drink, try and bring an air purifier. You can borrow one or two from my office if you like – just get in touch.
- Write to the Premier and Minister for Health thanking them for their renewed interest in reducing transmission and encouraging them to do more, to help our ambulance and hospital staff make it through winter.
And I’ll keep encouraging the government to face up to the problem, rather than hope it goes away.