27 March 2020

On experts, clarity and transparency

Communicable Disease TheHill

If Scott Morrison was applying for the job he’s got now – managing a once in 100 year health crisis – I suspect he wouldn’t make the first cut of an interview list in any organisation, big or small. He hasn’t got any experience to start with, to be fair not many PMs would have. But it does sometimes happen in the rough and tumble of politics that an odd, tough and smart personality will rise to the challenge of leadership in a real crisis. However last Tuesday night’s conference confirmed for many of us that he’s not up to that level of snuff.

Richard Flanagan wrote of Morrison’s performance on Wednesday in The Guardian: “Morrison is doing his level best to keep us all confused. Tuesday night’s media conference was the prime minister at his bumbling, inept worst. As my nephew, a teacher, texted me last night, he’s still allowed to teach a class of 30 children, but if he dies from the virus only 10 can come to his funeral. If I get remarried I can only bring four people….”

Flanagan notes that Morrison went down the path of castigating and threatening large sections of the population for the Bondi beach fiasco. This, a few days after he said he was going to the footy with 20,000 fellow Cronulla fans, and a couple of days after he allowed four cruise ships to empty their COVID-19 infected passengers onto the streets of Sydney to disperse unchecked throughout every state in Australia.

“Would it not be far better to introduce a staged system of responses, such as other countries have done, so that the public knows when we reach a certain point of  the pandemic – so many infections, so many deaths – that social distancing measures would go from this level to the next? So people know when they are approaching the level of a full lockdown and can prepare for it? “

Flanagan was making a plea for some simple stuff. Information delivered with clarity and transparency so people had good points of reference to start making good decisions themselves.

If you accept the premise that Morrison isn’t qualified and doesn’t appear to be up to the challenge of managing this crisis, then your next step is to look to our other experts and leaders for help.

It’s down to them, our carefully recruited experts with experience and qualifications, to not only determine the nation’s most appropriate response but to ensure the message about this response is disseminated clearly, consistently and with an obvious demonstration that the decisions are based on best evidence.

Sounds reasonable yes?

An ongoing issue for all our official experts to date remains the clarity of the information and transparency as to what evidence some of the decisions are based on.

It’s a tricky time.

We all want the ‘we’re all in this together approach’ and criticising our leaders and experts can be perceived as akin to treason by some.

One such target for a public stoning has been the ABC physician and journalist, Dr Norman Swan.

Dr Swan’s crime has been he’s asking questions that the experts won’t answer. But many in the general public like the questions and want the answers too.

When the experts don’t or won’t answer, confidence and trust are at risk.

Sure, the official experts can continue to blame the person asking the questions for the wavering public confidence, but really that’s hardly the issue. They are shooting the messenger and deflection for them not recognising they’ve lost many of the public with bad communication.

Dr Swan is quoting modelling out the UK’s Imperial College on the progress of the virus that suggests the “wait and see, step us we go strategy”, that the federal government has adopted might be insufficient. The modelling suggests we should go harder and sooner. And he’s copping a ton of grief from the official experts for doing it.

Why won’t the official experts answer Dr Swan’s questions ?

If you go to the UK official site about the coronavirus,  which is HERE and HERE, you see a stark difference in the amount of information the UK government is providing to both its health professionals and its citizens.

A key issue for Dr Swan is the  mathematics we’re learning every day about the virus’ behaviour. On the publicly-available UK NHS site  – the modelling, the scientific committee who are doing it, their qualifications, and updates are available every day. It is comprehensive, it is organised and it is very clear.

Where is that on www.health.gov.au.?

When chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, and his deputy were asked point blank by ABC journalists on Tuesday the simple question: “If we lockdown harder now, will the curve flatten sooner?” both deflected the question.

And they did it a few  times.

Why didn’t they just say yes it will? Was it concerns about the economy, people being less vigilant with time, or simply poor communication?

Twenty four hours ago a bunch of enterprising ABC journalists and researchers, produced THIS.

It’s a very clear, analytical and well-researched piece that models the COVID-19 spread in every country around the world. It explains the maths to us, and also outlines the response of each country and demonstrating the effectiveness of these responses.

Anyone who reads this will be a lot less confused about the problem.  The model highlights the urgency of the problem and the obvious repercussions of not doing the simple things now.

It’s a very powerful message. And in a way far more motivating than a Police Commissioner broadcasting new laws that enable police to arrest people who do not adhere to the new social distancing rules. This might be necessary, of course, but is that your top line of communication to an already frightened population?

One currently non-commissioned government expert, who advised the Rudd government during the global financial crisis told ABC’s 7.30 Report on Tuesday night it wasn’t feasible or practical to tell the public everything during that crisis. He said the government needs to operate with a certain degree of secrecy in a crisis like this to avoid panic and worsening things like our economy. He said the public should accept a degree of opacity from a government in crisis like this.

I’m not sure this expert’s idea that holding back certain information helps everyone calm and the economy on track is working anymore.

How much worse could it be if our experts started being a little more clear and transparent about the details of their plan, the models and why their approach makes sense. How hard would that be to have that clearly communicated?

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