The calculation error in COVID-19 projections made by the Peter Doherty Institute and incorporated into the National Cabinet response revealed last week was preventable and foreseeable — and now demands a national response.
This error, which has damaged Australians’ lives and livelihoods through unnecessarily severe lockdowns, is the warning the governments of Australia needed to change their governance processes and make them more inclusive and open.
Back on June 8, a letter signed by 30 public intellectuals, including 15 professors of relevant disciplines, one of whom is an advisor on health and well-being economics to the British government, drew the attention of the Prime Minister, Premiers and chief ministers to the need for an open, reviewable process for assessing models and policies.
The revelation that the estimates were four times too high is unsurprising, and will be one of a number of errors likely to have been made.
It is now vital that Commonwealth, state and territory governments restore public confidence in their management of coronavirus and any similar future crisis.
The only way to do this is to have a national summit which includes a wide range of experts from health, economics, law and governance to shape a more robust and inclusive decision-making process.
COVID-19 was originally thought to be more dangerous than it has proved to be. Early official government estimates for Australia suggested 150,000 people would die earlier than otherwise because of COVID, while as of June 1 it was 103 deaths. With a new virus, a lack of data is a problem, but so are models that are not robust and transparent. Decisions have been made that are opaque and not subject to normal democratic scrutiny. Goalposts appear to have been changed, but this re-direction, and the reasons behind it, have not been adequately shared with the community.
We need to change the way that decisions about how the community responds to transmissible diseases are made.
Five immediate steps need to be taken to restore confidence and transparency in decision making:
- No forecasting model can be used where the program code is not publicly available for analysis and download;
- A cost-benefit analysis, including lives saved versus lives lost, both directly and consequentially, based on the best available information, must be completed before any action is taken;
Weekly or daily non-epidemic death figures should be posted as well as deaths from the epidemic;
- The types of people who must be part of the advisory group to government should be specified in writing, and be more inclusive than what we appear to have at the moment;
No directive or regulation restricting individual rights can be promulgated without approval by the relevant parliament or parliaments within a one-month window.
This is not a conclusive list, but as the situation is dynamic it can form the foundations for sound processes which can be refined over time.
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