Before calling the election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed in a promotional video his government had done a good job of handling the COVID crisis over the past two years.
According to Morrison, “Things are tough” but “40,000 people are alive in Australia today because of the way we managed the pandemic, 700 thousand people still have jobs and countless numbers of businesses […] would have been destroyed.”
But what do Australians think of his government’s and their state leaders’ approach to COVID management? What could Morrison and other politicians have done better to control the spread of COVID and its economic impacts?
To find out, we interviewed 80 Australians from a wide range of ages and backgrounds – 40 people in mid-2020, then another 40 in September/October 2021. Here’s what we found.
The early days
The first set of interviews were after the first lockdown, when restrictions were beginning to loosen. It was looking as if lockdowns and border closures had worked to contain the pandemic.
The people involved in the first stage interviews were largely feeling fortunate and positive about Australian governments’ management of COVID. They remarked that in comparison to other wealthy countries, Australia was lucky to have escaped the worst effects of the pandemic.
As one respondent said:
We haven’t had the trauma that New York City or UK or Italy have or the USA in general have experienced, and I’m so grateful for that.
Participants said communication from state governments had been good – they particularly appreciated the regular press conferences held by premiers and chief health officers.
Nearly everyone was highly supportive of border closures between states and territories, as this made them feel safe and protected.
There was a more mixed response to the federal government. There was praise for closing Australia’s international border early:
They’ve made some really good moves. Closing down the international flights initially was probably what saved us going down a pretty dark road.
However, many people mentioned the federal government’s handling of the Ruby Princess cruise ship outbreak as a major misstep:
I’m particularly horrified by what happened with the Ruby Princess. There are people dead now who wouldn’t have been probably dead if those people weren’t let loose into Sydney.
In terms of economic support from the federal government, most interviewees praised the JobKeeper and JobSeeker initiatives to support workers and businesses.
Others pointed out that many people or occupation groups were left out of this support.
I think they haven’t thought through the JobKeeper and the JobSeeker finance very well. I think it should have been more far-reaching, because we really could have done with that.
Fast forward to September/October 2021. By then, the pandemic was in a very different phase. The Delta variant had caused major outbreaks in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, with strict and extended lockdowns.
The vaccine rollout had finally gathered pace, and Australians were promised that receiving two doses of COVID vaccine would be the “way out” of further restrictions or lockdowns.
The Australians we interviewed at this point had been through many twists and turns in the pandemic by then, and had some different views to offer.
A dominant theme was frustration that policy changes were so constant and different, state by state. Unlike the early national lockdown, where everyone went through the same restrictions, each state and territory had since experienced different lockdowns of different lengths.
People complained about a lack of clarity from governments about the best way forward for the nation as a whole. They remarked on the constant change in government advice about what to do in relation to the risk of COVID.
They were becoming weary of the difficulties posed by internal border closures and just wanted clear guidance from their leaders concerning what needed to happen to control the pandemic.
The vaccine rollout was a particular bugbear. Morrison came in for some trenchant criticism for what people saw as lack of decisive action in securing and providing enough vaccines for Australians:
I personally think that Scott Morrison really stuffed up when ordering the vaccines. Yeah, the vaccine rollouts have been shocking based on the federal government’s ordering of those vaccines.
Finally, a plan
In August 2021, a National Plan was agreed to by both the federal and state governments for “the way out” of continued lockdowns and moving towards “living with COVID”. This plan set targets for high vaccine coverage of eligible Australians.
By the end of September 2021, problems earlier that year with the vaccine supply and rollout had finally been dealt with. Rates of vaccinated Australians were rising quickly.
With these targets, Australians knew what they had to do. All 40 people interviewed for this part of the study had received at least one of the vaccines and were planning to get their second dose as soon as they could.
The interviewees were positive about improvements in the rollout and the clarity offered by the targets set by the road maps:
I really appreciated this benchmark being set at 80%, because it’s quantifiable.
People were able to see some end to the pandemic. But they still remembered some of the missteps of the federal government over the course of the pandemic. They continued to see their own state/territory leaders as doing a better job.
[At the] federal level, I don’t think they’ve even done anything really. I just think they’ve mishandled it completely. They haven’t dealt with the vaccinations quick enough. They don’t support the states enough.
Australians have long memories
Since these interviews took place, the Omicron variant has spread rapidly, schools, supply chains and workplaces have been badly disrupted, and vaccine uptake has slowed down.
As these interviews showed, Australians haven’t forgotten what has gone wrong during the pandemic.
When they go to the polls, they will also be considering how Morrison and his cabinet has handled the past six months, and weighing up the history of his response across these past two-plus years of pandemic crisis.
Deborah Lupton, SHARP Professor, leader of the Vitalities Lab, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Centre, UNSW Sydney, and leader of the UNSW Node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, UNSW Sydney