Prime Minister Scott Morrison has ramped up pressure on the Victorian government to act more quickly to trace new coronavirus cases, urging it to embrace the approach in NSW to lift its performance against the pandemic.
Mr Morrison warned of a national cost for the state outbreak and named NSW measures as the best standard in contact tracing, piling pressure on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
Worried the Victorian systems were still paper-based as recently as last month, federal officials are urging the state government to replicate the NSW system in order to drive down case numbers.
The Morrison government believes the NSW system has an advantage in the way the public health unit in each local health district conducts the initial calls to those infected, arranging interviews within hours.
Behind the new call is a federal concern that Victorian state agencies and departments have not run an integrated system that allows rapid tracing, leading to duplicated efforts.
“The most important thing is ensuring that we build an integrated tracing capability right across the country that enables a country to remain open despite the threat of outbreaks,” Mr Morrison said.
“NSW is the gold standard. That is where we have to get everybody to, to ensure that Australia can be open.”
Under the NSW approach, contacts are notified by either by the public health unit or the Health Department’s contact tracing team by phone, text or email within 24 hours.
Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton responded to Mr Morrison’s comments by arguing the state was working in the same way as others.
“We are doing contact tracing akin to NSW, Queensland and most places in the world right now,” he told ABC Melbourne.
But the secretary of the federal Department of Health, Brendan Murphy, said NSW was the “exemplar” in dealing with the pandemic, with good outbreak response teams.
“It’s not just about tracing. It’s about the outbreak response. It’s about the epidemiologist expertise. It’s about that clinical leadership,” said Professor Murphy, previously the Commonwealth chief medical officer.
Mr Morrison and Professor Murphy acknowledged the Victorian government had made a substantial effort to improve contact tracing in recent months.
Even so Mr Morrison argued Victoria could emerge from stage four restrictions faster if it followed the NSW approach and tracked new infections faster.
“Clearly, what NSW is doing is working better than other places because they have the biggest threats to their system and have had the best results in response to those threats,” he said.
“So that clearly indicates that that is the standard which we should be seeking to move towards.”
As business leaders criticise the Victorian state government for not consulting enough before extending the stage four restrictions, Mr Morrison said he would talk to industry in order to pass on its feedback to the Victorian Premier.
“We will be sitting down with industry. We will be sitting down with business through our National Coordinating Mechanism which is run out of the Department of Home Affairs, and we’ll listen carefully, and we’ll faithfully convey all of that feedback,” Mr Morrison said.
Labor legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus, the member for Isaacs in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, accused the Prime Minister of being “cheap” with his criticisms of the state government.
“He’s sniping from the sidelines, and grabbing cheap headlines,” Mr Dreyfus said.
Mr Morrison sought to convey some sympathy for Victorians at the same time he tried to put pressure on the Premier.
“The feeling out there today is hard. They’re frustrated. The mental health of Victorians will be sorely tested,” Mr Morrison said.
But Labor deputy leader Richard Marles, whose electorate of Corio includes Geelong, criticised Mr Morrison on Sky News for not showing enough care for Victorians.
“I mean the obvious question is; does he stand with Victoria in the midst of this crisis … or is he in fact heckling from the sidelines and engaging in the really unedifying spectacle of our national government governing by whinging rather than governing by leadership? That’s the complaint I’ve got.”
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David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.