It’s been a wild old Sunday, with the federal education minister Dan Tehan going from raging bull to mewling kitten in the space of four hours, so let’s work through things step by step.
Scott Morrison has been intensely frustrated with school closures for weeks. The prime minister wants schools to reopen as the bedrock of getting the economy moving again, and the bulk of the medical advice before the government suggests that schools are low risk.
Morrison is also very attuned to the frustrations of parents trying to home school primary school aged kids and still continue to work, and to the worries of senior students who have had their Year 12 blown off course. We should also worry about the needs of disadvantaged kids, who will be falling between the cracks.Sign up for Guardian Australia’s daily coronavirus email newsletter
Morrison also is correct to counsel that politicians should follow the medical advice, because so far, following the medical advice has served Australia very well. So far, so rational.
But as we start to drill down below these inoffensive sounding top lines, things become more complicated.
Victoria has demurred from the majority view inside the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee about schools. The Victorian position has been that kids should learn at home to the extent it is feasible. The state wants to conduct more testing in the community before deciding when to reopen schools.
So tracking back to the Morrison dictum about experts – which advice is the premier Daniel Andrews supposed to follow? His own expert, assessing local inputs, or other advice, where circumstances might be different?
As for following the medical advice, let’s be clear: Australian politicians have listened to their experts. I am profoundly grateful they have, because evidence-based policy making is always better than the alternative.
But two points about this are important: the first is Australia’s medical experts have a wealth of knowledge, but they are not in possession of perfect information, because this virus is still new.
The second point to make is the medical advice has been interpreted through a political lens since at least the middle of March. This has never been a perfectly clean process where experts say “do this” and politicians dutifully execute down to the footnotes – otherwise you could suspend the process of representative democracy and just put Brendan Murphy in charge.
Managing Covid-19 is a risk management exercise, and political leaders, like all of us, have different appetites for risk. With schools, governments have tried to paper over those differences by meeting as a national cabinet and articulating basic principles. On April 16, Morrison articulated seven principles for the school education response to Covid-19. Principle four says the states and territories are responsible for making operational decisions about their school systems.
But apparently not on Sunday. Tehan went onto the ABC’s Insiders program and gave Andrews a blood nose. Tehan wondered why Andrews was taking a “sledgehammer” to his schools. Not content with that, he wondered further why one premier was “jeopardising the national consensus on this”.
And so it went. It was a bout of what my mother would call “fast breathing”, which is a much nicer characterisation than having a tantrum. Not Dan Tehan’s finest hour.
After the program, the immunologist Peter Doherty, a Nobel Laureate, took to Twitter to try and land a nuance that seems a bit lost in the mix. Doherty said it was interesting how schools were being invoked as “a homogeneous entity”. “Realities may be different re both teaching and Covid-19 transmission for primary and secondry schools and in New South Wales and Victoria where there have been the most cases,” Doherty said. “Opening the schools is an experiment that must be closely watched.”
Prof. Peter Doherty (@ProfPCDoherty)
#Insiders Interesting how we use "schools" as a homogeneous entity. Realities may be different re both teaching & COVID-19 transmission for 1ery & 2ndry schools & in NSW & Vic where there's been the most cases. Opening the schools is an experiment that must be closely watched. May 2, 2020