Has Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein stepped away from the word of public health experts?

Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein has made a point of relying on Public Health advice throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Anyone questioning a government decision has been accused of questioning the health experts — a serious slight in a global pandemic. 

Those same experts offer briefings to opposition MPs on the coronavirus situation.

At one of these briefings on Monday, Public Health deputy director Scott McKeown was asked why essential travellers were still entering Tasmania without being tested.

He told attendees it was because the risk of transmission was low.

Dr McKeown estimated there was a one-in-10 million chance of coronavirus entering Tasmania from outside declared hotspots. 

A bald man with a beard and glasses stands at a podium, another taller, bearded man stands behind him holding paperwork.
Tasmanian director of Public Health Mark Veitch backed Scott McKeown’s estimate of risk.(ABC News: Alison Costelloe)

At a press event on Friday, Dr McKeown’s assessment of the risk was then publicly backed by Public Health director Mark Veitch, who warned against placing too much emphasis on the figure but agreed it was “probably around the mark”.

The Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the revealed risk was a “game changer”, while the head of the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania, Luke Martin, said the reasoning behind the state’s tough restrictions was getting “beyond a joke”.

(Let’s recall that a border bubble with similarly safe jurisdictions was floated, set in place, then popped because of the perceived risk to Tasmanians.)

Luke Martin grins at the camera.
Luke Martin, from the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania, is critical of the state’s border restrictions.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

With questions mounting on Saturday, and a scathing treatment from News Corp masthead The Mercury, Mr Gutwein made an unscheduled press appearance to hose down outrage.

And if Dr McKeown is waking up with a sore head on Sunday, it’s probably because he appeared to be thrown under the bus.

“That figure was a response from a public health official to a question on essential travellers,” Mr Gutwein told reporters.

Questioning continued. Why on earth would Scott McKeown bandy around an incorrect figure?

“That’s a matter for Scott McKeown at that particular time,” Mr Gutwein said.

“You can be fascinated by the number, but at the end of the day there is no modelling in terms of that figure that has been provided.”

Assuming Public Health officials don’t pluck figures out of thin air, Labor called on the Premier to release the advice he was relying on when keeping Tasmania’s borders shut and internal restrictions in place until December 1.

This is not just typical opposition squawking. The Premier’s own coronavirus recovery council made five recommendations to the Government specific to providing clearer messaging on his decisions.

That’s not to mention the Tasmanians who have made serious sacrifices. Funerals have been missed, businesses have been closed and weddings have been postponed. 

On Saturday, under pressure, the Premier repeatedly said the issue was more complicated than Dr McKeown’s one-in-10 million figure.

The Premier’s explanation for staying tough on restrictions was fourfold. 

He explained he was giving Tasmanians enough time to mentally prepare for the borders to reopen.

The aged care and health sectors have work to do. 

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission only started assessing all aged care providers’ preparedness for COVID-19 last month.

Tasmania’s health system is already showing signs of strain, with the Mersey Community Hospital opening only during business hours because the crisis in Victoria means it’s unable to attract enough locums to safely staff the facility.

Cross-border travel is another concern for the Premier, who has repeatedly pointed to South Australia’s visitation from Victoria as a reason to keep Tasmania’s borders close to the former state.

(It’s worth noting here that the vast majority of Victorians travelling into South Australia work in transport and freight — such as truck drivers — or live and work across the border, in which case they have to be tested weekly anyway.)

Those factors — combined with a potential $500 million hit to the economy if there was another shutdown — appear reasonable.

But if it really is a one-in-10 million chance of transmission — as expressed by Tasmania’s two top Public Health officials — that should surely form part of the public messaging too.

MPs are rightly worried about fear in the community when it comes to coronavirus.

Tasmania has already suffered one awful blow, and it has left behind 13 grieving families. 

Labor has pointed out that publicly sharing these sorts of statistics privately offered by Dr McKeown, while making clear the complexity and unpredictability of the situation, could actually help quell fears.

It’s worth mentioning another fear growing within the community: speaking out about the decisions that are made.

One Launceston tourism operator, practically bleeding money, declined to talk on camera on Saturday about their dissatisfaction with the situation out of concern about the potential public backlash. They are not alone.

Scott McKeown, Deputy Director of Public Health at a press conference with Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein.
The deputy director of Public Health’s estimates of risk have been skirted by the Premier.(ABC News)

Privately, Mr Gutwein has been accused by stakeholders of using Public Health advice as a shield.

Tasmanians would likely expect the Premier to rely on Public Health advice. They would also expect him to be transparent about what that advice is and how it’s informing his decisions. 

Even the quickest sweep of social media, apparently a primary source of community sentiment for the government, will reveal most Tasmanians are happy to keep the drawbridge up on the moat. 

With an incredible 70 per cent approval rating, perhaps that’s where Mr Gutwein is happy to leave it.

Tourism operators, business owners and those with family interstate are just hoping the the Premier’s approval rating is not a deciding factor for when border restrictions will ease.