Clearing up the coronavirus confusion

Australian people are justifiably confused, and many scared, about coronavirus and its impacts. It's not just about whether they will catch the virus, but whether they will keep jobs, and what other longer-term changes will be necessary in their lives and lifestyle. Mixed signals from the Morrison Government seriously compound confusion and concern.

Morrison himself hasn't really led by example. He was extremely "cavalier" a couple of weeks ago when having announced a limit on public gatherings to 500 (a specific number I find it very hard to believe was actually recommended by his "panel of medical experts") he then delayed the implementation of that decision until after the weekend as he wanted to go to the footy (and indeed encouraged others to do likewise), and to facilitate a large church gathering.

So, his subsequent chastising of those who went to Bondi Beach as "cavalier", and that he has now limited public gatherings to just 10, with social distancing requirements for people to be spaced 1.5m apart, leaves many people simply bewildered. Equally, it's hard to understand why Morrison is happy to keep shopping centres (such as large Westfield-type) and schools open, given limits on social distancing and specific activities?

The messaging on schools is particularly confusing. Morrison insists they are open, and must remain so, even though they have been closed in Victoria (bringing holidays forward), others are having "pupil free days", and schools are said to be open in NSW, but the Premier encourages parents to keep kids at home.

Morrison originally argued that he wanted to avoid risk of children infecting vulnerable grand parents, but now we are told that children are not significant carriers and their rate of infection is very low? How do we know this? Morrison also argues that he wants to avoid our children missing a year of school - really? Also, why a limit of five at weddings and 10 at funerals? Basically, Morrison has been dragging his feet in terms of "close downs", out of concern for the impacts on the economy, but is now being pushed along almost daily by the Premiers to inevitably a complete shut down.

The medical argument, and urgency, has been the need to "flatten the curve", to slow the rate of infection, which on overseas evidence is strongly exponential. However, it needs to be recognised that while the rate of infection can be slowed, the virus is not beaten, and won't be, until an effective vaccination is developed and deployed.

People are also having considerable difficulty understanding the likely economic and social consequences. The Government rhetoric has quickly shifted from claiming credit for "Our Strong Economy", and that the Budget is "Back in Black", to suggesting that we face the prospect of a recession and rising unemployment, and a run of budget deficits. But, our economy wasn't strong and those claims didn't resonate with the lived experience of the majority struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of living, with flat wages, record household debts, and mounting job insecurity.

The Government, supported by the Reserve Bank, has announced two very large packages to both stimulate the economy and "cushion" the impact of the inevitable recession.

However, with all this uncertainty we are left with little idea of what impacts the Government expects these packages to have on the economy: importantly, on growth, unemployment, government spending/debt, and the $AU, and for how long. This has been compounded by the decision to delay the Budget from May to October.

At the very least, recognising the genuine difficulties of finalising a Budget in theses circumstances, Treasury should be required to update their forecasts and assessments regularly between now and October. In addition, the Government was also not ready to roll out the announced assistance to individuals and businesses as evidenced by the queues at Centrelink and the collapse of the MyGov website; significant echoes of Rudd pink batts and school halls. Hopefully, the new Coronavirus Coordination Commission can improve this significantly.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.