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Even inside Queensland's 'war room', people are now keeping their distance

Politics

Queensland’s key decisionmakers in the coronavirus response are being shadowed – while also trying to keep their distance from each other – in the event that someone becomes infected.

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So real is the threat of infection breaking the line of command that many health and government officials now have an understudy, following their work, ready to step in and take over should the incumbent be forced into hospital or self-isolation.

And where longer, crucial meetings have to be held in-person, they are often being shifted to conference rooms so the participants can sit several metres apart – just in case someone has COVID-19 without realising.

It is expected today’s state Cabinet meeting would have taken similar precautions, as the risk intensifies. Public tours of Parliament House have been cancelled, ahead of sittings this week, and MPs have been advised to have meetings off-site and encourage staff to also stay away if possible. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk briefed  MPs on the threat on February 4, ahead of a meeting with affected industries the following day, and has tried to stick with her routine.

To date, no one at a senior level in Queensland has been diagnosed with COVID-19, although a health official has the flu, several advisers have the common cold, and everyone is on high alert. A sudden change in Palaszczuk’s schedule today ultimately prompted her office to publicly deny she was being tested for the coronavirus.

It remains the case that tests are only given to those who have recently returned from overseas, or had contact with someone with COVID-19, and are showing symptoms. It is considered inevitable, however, that a Queensland government minister will be diagnosed. Maybe several ministers will be taken off-line – or, online, as the case may be for those working remotely – and require Cabinet colleagues to take on more responsibilities.

At the centre of Queensland’s response is not a politician but the state’s chief health officer of 15 years, Dr Jeannette Young. She is an influential member of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which is currently in an intense, two-day meeting to discuss ramping up the response, especially in aged care and remote Indigenous communities. Young works closely with Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles, who has held regular, ad hoc discussions with his state and territory counterparts. Both have someone ready to step in for them – a worst case scenario – and there are also pools of public servants able to be re-deployed.

The AHPPC advises members of the Council Of Australian Governments, which met on Friday and agreed to establish a national Cabinet for COVID-19. The national Cabinet – something Palaszczuk was calling for weeks ago – met on Sunday before travel restrictions were announced and will meet again tomorrow night to consider the advice from the AHPPC.

Within state Cabinet, there is now a health and public safety subcommittee, responsible for deciding and implanting the local response. It does what the Queensland Disaster Management Committee would do during a flood or cyclone, but in a slightly different way, given this is a pandemic. They have held exercises to fine-tune the response, although it is fair to say the situation is constantly changing.

“I think the public can be reassured that we have done this type of planning when it comes to natural disasters and we are doing exactly that type of planning when it comes to the coronavirus,” Palaszczuk said recently.

Federally, the Australian Defence Force is now involved, but at a state level Queensland Health remains the lead agency. However, Young has the power to force people into quarantine, with the support of the Queensland Police Service, and can order closures. She is known to take an aggressive approach to protecting public health if there is evidence it will help.

Education Minister Grace Grace was being briefed on the novel coronavirus as early as mid-January, and is considering the latest health advice, and reports from her department on the situation in schools, to oversee any closures. Other ministers have had their own unique perspective, depending on the portfolio.

So far, Queensland’s response has been commended on a national level. Palaszczuk was one of the first to demand travel restrictions, isolation protocols have now become the norm, while health officials in Canberra applauded Miles’ decision to fast-track elective surgery before the disruption of the peak. Several states, including Victoria, have followed his lead.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today said “there is great coordination now, more than I’ve ever seen between the states and the Commonwealth in managing the response”.

“And they all agreed yesterday that they would be going through their various declarations on public health emergencies over the next few days,” Morrison said.

“South Australia did it yesterday. Queensland’s had it in place for some time. And they’re doing that in concert and talking to each other. And I think that’s really important.”

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