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Josh Zimmerman: ‘Personal responsibility’ our only weapon against COVID

Welcome to the era of individual COVID responsibility.

It’s come two years later than might have been preferred by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison but there was no mistaking the doona being folded up and put away for good on Saturday.

Emerging from a snap meeting of National Cabinet at the weekend, new PM Anthony Albanese came armed with a message but, notably, no mandates.

Mask-wearing in indoor public spaces was to be “strongly encouraged” in response to rapidly rising COVID hospitalisations but would not be forced upon anyone.

It was a position Albanese said all State and Territory leaders agreed upon and — unlike in the wake of similar proclamations by his predecessor — was not immediately followed by a stream of premiers calling their own press conferences to torpedo the unity ticket.

The 457 West Australians in hospital with COVID on Wednesday was the most at any point in the pandemic — and nearly 50 per cent higher than the peak reached during the first Omicron wave in May — and yet restrictions have never been so light-touch.

It is a similar story across the nation, with sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5 driving big spikes in both infections and hospitalisations but governments resisting calls from doctors, nurses and teachers to bring back masks.

Premier Mark McGowan built a reputation for forging his own path through most of the COVID response but has been in near lockstep with other leaders all winter.

After winding back the vast majority of COVID restrictions at the end of April, McGowan — like his counterparts across the country — has shown little appetite for bringing any of them back.

“You just don’t want to lose your social licence in these things,” is how McGowan summed up the state of play on Tuesday.

In other words, after nearly three years of COVID a significant proportion of the community is fed up with being told what they can and can’t do — and increasingly less likely to listen.

In fact — somewhat jarringly — McGowan’s only recent deviation from the national advice came on Wednesday when expressing resistance to a widespread return to employees working from home.

In order to combat the winter wave, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee had called on businesses to temporarily “allow work from home if feasible”.

While saying it was up to individual employers, McGowan said a “broad approach of stay home and work” was “inconsistent” with West Australians being allowed to freely visit gyms and pubs and cinemas — and would devastate the CBD.

The position then seems clear: sweeping mandates and restrictive capacity rules are a thing of the past.

West Australians — already among the most heavily vaccinated populations in the world — will now be trusted to make their own decisions.

And after two and half years of preparation, the State’s still mightily stretched hospitals will be trusted to deal with the inevitable collateral damage.

It is an interesting dynamic when set against the backdrop of an ongoing public sector wages dispute, with McGowan so far refusing to bow to union demands to grant nurses and other health care workers a 5 per cent pay rise.

The Premier is offering 2.75 per cent — well below inflation, which was running at 5.1 per cent nationally in the year to March.

That comes after five years of public sector wage rises being capped at $1000, a cornerstone policy in Labor’s bid to turn around WA’s finances and rein in spiralling debt.

If no agreement can be reached, hospital staff will be joined by a broad range of government workers — including police, prison guards and firefighters — in an August 17 strike that will include a march on Parliament.

The unions’ primary gripe — aside from the McGowan Government’s tight-fisted approach despite consecutive Budget surpluses in excess of $5 billion — is that they are being forced into pointless rounds of bargaining meetings with bureaucrats who have no decision-making authority.

Ultimately, they say there is only one person with the power to make a wages offer that would stem the haemorrhaging of public sector staff — including health care workers — and avoid a strike that would coincide with the expected peak of the current Omicron wave.

That person is the Premier himself. How’s that for individual responsibility?

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