Policy making in the time of coronavirus

Government News speaks to the director of the University of Sydney’s Sydney Policy Lab and former Professor of Political Theory at Oxford, Professor Marc Stears, about the policy challenges facing the government in what’s been described as the biggest international crisis since the Second World War.

Professor Marc Stears.

GN: What are the biggest policy challenges right now?

MS: The biggest challenge is that you’re having to do the whole waterfront. You have to do everything at once – education policy, health policy, social policy, economic policy – which is absolutely unheard of outside of war time. I think that is the biggest challenge: how to get your head across a huge range of issues which you are having to act on more than once a day.

GN: How do you rate the government’s response so far?

MS: What I’ve been impressed by is the Australian Government’s willingness to learn from international experience. It took them a while to move towards a wage subsidy, but when they did they clearly had listened and learned from a lot of different  jurisdictions like the UK and Denmark.  In the public health domain, in contrast to some other countries, they’ve done a really good job at listening to experience, certainly from some of the more successful Asian countries.

GN: What are your thoughts on the move to integrate private health into the public system?

MS: For some time health policy makers have been  thinking about the relationship between public and private health care. It will remain a difficulty in the longer term, but the move to integration now is clearly really important. And they’ve tried to strike a middle ground between respecting the rights of private providers, but also making sure that they take action in the public good.

GN: What have the overseas policy successes and failures been?

MS: The UK is really interesting. Economically, it took hugely bold actions very fast and its economic policy agenda has really set the global standard . But they’ve clearly struggled in the public health domain, largely because they tried to go it alone rather than following best practice advice from the WHO or from Korea or Singapore. Moving fast to try and retain jobs is very important and I think the UK Chancellor has shown to be really farsighted about trying to ensure that much of the economy is able to pick up again as soon as people return to work.

On the public health side some people are saying that the Germans have been doing really well because they’ve had mass testing. The latest data on preventing deaths is a little  more concerning, but by and large their public health response has probably been the best in Europe so far.

The US is fascinating because the federal system means you’ve got very different responses in different states. California moved quite early and boldly in a public health sense and is probably doing better than other states in having requirements to stay at home much earlier than some of the others. Federally it’s been a bit of a mess if I’m honest, but it seems to have turned a bit of a corner. The contrast in the US is that they have some of the best scientific minds in the world, yet they haven’t been able to influence federal policy.

GN: Why is it important to get our policy right and what are the stakes if we don’t?

MS: The stakes are gigantic if we don’t get policy right. The UN has declared this the biggest international crisis since WWII, and that basically says everything. You’re fighting on so many fronts simultaneously and any one of them could go wrong. Social tensions could rise, the economy could tank, the health crisis could get out of control, kids who are losing out on education could be put back years. You really are fighting on so many fronts at the same time.

GN: The Sydney Policy Lab has developed a guide COVID-19 policy making. What was the thinking behind that?

MS: Because of the intensity of this crisis, big policy decisions that would usually take a lot of time and reflection are being made extraordinarily rapidly.  What we’re trying to equip policy makers with is something short and snappy that they might be able to use for that moment of reflection that they would usually build into the policy process. It’s a check list, a tool kit for people to say, ‘are we heading in the wrong direction or are we heading in the right direction with some of these big changes’.

GN:  There are five key principles in the  policy guide. Which is the most important?

MS: The most important thing is trying to keep balance so you don’t prioritise one thing over the other while trying to make sure you’re doing as much as you can across the whole piece. We started with health care at number one because that’s the most pressing and immediate concern. But you also have to be able to act in a way that’s going to stabilise your economy and protect your society.

GN: One of the principles refers to protecting democracy and rights. Why is that important?

MS: The potential social consequences of where we’re at are really severe. The long term social consequences are probably the hardest thing to prepare for, but something we’re all going to have to live with when we’re out of our homes again. How do you to roll back some of these emergency measures? It’s really tricky.

The Policy Lab’s five key principles to guide policy making during the coronavirus pandemic:

  1. Fair and equal access to healthcare – especially for already vulnerable groups
  2. Shared economic sacrifice – including wage protection, sufficient unemployment benefits, and anti-profiteering legislation
  3. Enhancing social relationships – ensuring those most at risk of harm caused by self-isolation are protected
  4. Protecting democracy, rights and liberties – holding government accountable if needed in a time of extreme measures
  5. Building a sustainable future – preparing for the future by also rectifying the mistakes of the past

Read the full guide here.

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