A pretty dodgy article …

from Peter Collignon on Sydney outbreak Among the problems:

  • The text doesn’t mention mask mandates at all, and captioned photo implies that government initiated this measure rather than being pushed into it, after failure to require them led to Berala cluster (at least according to AMA)
  • Collignon claims that “many prominent individuals” demanded a total lockdown. One link is to Norman Swan, who did suggest it. The other is to Raina McIntyre who said a short lockdown might be necessary if case numbers rose.
  • Opposes border closures while claiming Victorian response as a success
  • There’s no discussion of SCG test, which may still turn out badly, despite original superspreader plans being wound back under pressure
  • Premature triumphalism given that cases and venues of concern keep on coming. A short lockdown might have been a better choice, than daily announcements sending hundreds or thousands into isolation.

17 thoughts on “A pretty dodgy article …

  1. Peter Collignon is billed as a professor of infectious diseases at the ANU Medical School. As a general rule I would be far less likely to question a Professor of a hard science than I am to question a Professor of Economics, for example. Prof. J.Q. no doubt knows this from my many opinionated posts.

    In this case however, I am much inclined to agree with J.Q. The article indeed does read as fairly dodgy. I could easily and quickly find online six expert Australian epidemiologist public opinions which would run counter to the tenor and conclusions of Collignon’s article. The tenor is pretty much that NSW and its responses are perfect in every way, whereas other states and responses are considerably less so. I also agree on the issue of “premature triumphalism”. Don’t (under)count your viral bodies or particles until they all hatch.

    In addition, call me a parochial Queenslander but I sense more than a little of that overweening superiority complex of the Sydney-Canberra axis, especially when both governments there are run by the Tories who are in with Murdoch, of course. The criticisms that Teflon Gladys has escaped unscathed from recently are amazing, including conflicts of interest, failures of political judgement and potential funding scandals of $200 million plus involving deleted files. Almost concrete-truck mixer sized buckets of mud would have been flung at Annastacia Palaszczuk by the Tories and the Murdoch rags for any misdemeanors on Anna’s part that even remotely approached that scale.

    So, it’s the concrete-truck mixer sized buckets of criticism for Annastacia and Dan Andrews (Labor) but nothing but praise, self-praise and cross-praise for all the wondrous actions of Teflon Gladys and Slippery Scott. This is the Sydney-Canberra-Tory-Murdoch mutual self-congratulation, self-interest society in full swing. It does indeed look like a lot of self-generated, premature triumphal ejaculation to me.

  2. As long as you got no blonde blue-eyed Virologist whose grandfather was running the construction of a Chemical factory in Auschwitz that keeps advocating for quasi social Darwinist positions, supported by the biggest tabloid everything is still alright.

  3. Re: the request for an open thread on the Trump botched coup? Hereby seconded.

    “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” – Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’.

    Beware with Trump that he does not appear first as farce, the second time as tragedy. Nancy Pelosi, who I am at times critical of, seems to be aware of this latter possibility. She wants to nail him with impeachment in the last days of his Presidency. Presumably one reason is to prevent a comeback in 2024. The other apparently is to strip the nuclear football off him.

  4. Conviction on impeachment, even delayed after the inauguration, would also open the door to stripping ex-President Trump of numerous perks including Secret Servive protection, which he is going to need given the character of the people to whom he owes a lot of money. It looks as if this would need separarte but simple legislation. He US constitution bans bills of attainder and retroactive incrimination (Article 1.9.3), but impeachment applies to cabinet officers and federal judges, so that would not apply..

  5. I’ll stick with the topic.

    Nationally Australia was isolated from March, various States have isolated for long periods and cities have also imposed restrictions on movement, contacts and activity.

    In essence Australia has experienced a number of “lockdowns” and these lockdowns, plus masking, distancing, contact tracing and other measures have almost eliminated COVID.

    To a large extent Australians are free to go about their business without the risk of disease.

    The U.K. eased all restrictions allowing overseas travel – they are now in severe lockdown, rates of infection are soaring and public health has reached or exceeded capacity.

    At this point in time lockdowns are a critical piece of control.

  6. Yes, lock-downs are a critical piece of control. As the old advertisement says, “oils ain’t oils” and lock-downs ain’t lock-downs. That is to say there are many gradations of lock-down. There are also many gradations of the other policies related to pandemic controls. Our borders are still far too porous (at least to covid-19 ingress) and our quarantine systems leak like a sieve.

    To maintain near elimination before vaccination becomes a comprehensive defence (if it ever does), there is a necessity to further improve our border controls against covid-19 ingress and to further improve quarantine. Our government has started to improve border controls re covid-19. They need to be tightened much further. Our governments, state and federal also need to begin building purpose-built quarantine stations outside all capital cities. Hotel quarantine is a hasty, slipshod, emergency measure. It needs to be replaced by proper quarantine stations. Even if the stations are not finished before the end of the covid-19 pandemic they will be needed for the next pandemic and the one after that and so on. Waves of pandemic of mutated flu and zoonotic diseases will continue to wash over the world.

    We have entered a new era. Everything has changed. The old normal is never coming back. The sooner people let it go, the sooner we can adapt. Climate change and limits to growth are at the base of the causation chains driving all these events. The world is over-populated. Humans are over-consuming. The economy is over-producing and doing so in a wasteful and destructive manner. Capitalism has failed. Endless growth in a finite system is impossible.


    This article was written before the pandemic. How much stronger now are its arguments as they are borner out by events! Every day we watch the West (except Australia / NZ) collapse into a morass of disease and social disintegration. The USA, UK and EU could certainly collapse completely. How can they rebuild? Who will give them a Marshall Plan? Where are the resources to come from in a resource-depleted world? There are possibilities, like Keynesian / MMT style spending, plus ecologically sound rebuilding plus peaceful and democratic socialist change. But these are remote possibilities as the USA, UK and EU apparently still ossify further into permanent neoliberal catabolism.

  7. Quarantine is a critical part of infectious disease control.

    Why allow many potentially infectious people coming into Australia (and other countries with low infection rates) into high population density centres – e.g. Sydney and Melbourne? It’s a high risk strategy that has demonstrated failure on more than one occasion (here in Australia), necessitating ‘lock-downs’ within those population centres.

    There are airports in regional and remote areas within Australia that can also accommodate large aircraft.

    For example, the Airbus A380 aircraft can operate to and from the following Australian airports:

    1. SYD – Sydney Kingsford Smith, NSW, 33°56′46″S 151°10′38″E, elevation above mean sea level (AMSL) 6 m
    Runway 07/25: 2,530 m (8,301 ft) Asphalt;
    Runway 16L/34R: 2,438 m (7,999 ft) Asphalt; *marginal*
    Runway 16R/34L: 3,962 m (12,999 ft) Asphalt

    2. MEL – Melbourne Tullamarine, VIC, 37°40′24″S 144°50′36″E, elevation AMSL 132 m
    Runway 09/27: 2,286 m (7,500 ft) Asphalt; *marginal*
    Runway 16/34: 3,657 m (11,998 ft) Asphalt

    3. BNE – Brisbane, QLD, 27°23′00″S 153°07′06″E, elevation AMSL 0.3 m
    Runway 01L/19R: 3,300 m (10,827 ft) Asphalt;
    Runway 01R/19L: 3,560 m (11,680 ft) Asphalt

    4. ADL – Adelaide, SA, 34°56′42″S 138°31′50″E, elevation AMSL 6 m
    Runway 05/23: 3,100 m (10,171 ft) Asphalt;
    Runway 12/30: 1,652 m (5,420 ft) Asphalt *inadequate*

    5. PER – Perth, WA, 31°56′25″S 115°58′01″E, elevation AMSL 20 m
    Runway 03/21: 3,444 m (11,299 ft) Asphalt;
    Runway 06/24: 2,163 m (7,096 ft) Asphalt *inadequate*

    6. DRW – Darwin, NT, 12°24′53″S 130°52′36″E, elevation AMSL 31 m
    Runway 11/29: 3,354 m (11,004 ft) Asphalt;
    Runway 18/36: 1,524 m (5,000 ft) Asphalt *inadequate*

    7. AVV – Avalon, VIC, 38°02′26″S 144°28′15″E, elevation AMSL 35 m
    Runway 18/36: 3,048 m (10,000 ft) Asphalt

    8. LEA – Learmonth, WA, 22°14′09″S 114°05′19″E, elevation AMSL 6 m
    Runway 18/36: 3,047 m (9,997 ft) Asphalt/Concrete

    9. KTR – RAAF Base Tindal/Katherine, NT, 14°31′16″S 132°22′40″E, elevation AMSL 135 m
    Runway 14/32: 2,744 m (9,003 ft) Asphalt

    10. ROK – Rockhampton, QLD, 23°22′54″S 150°28′30″E, elevation AMSL 11 m
    Runway 04/22: 1,645 m (5,397 ft) Paved; *inadequate*
    Runway 15/33: 2,568 m (8,425 ft) Paved

    11. ASP – Alice Springs, NT, 23°48′25″S 133°54′08″E, elevation AMSL 545 m
    Runway 12/30: 2,438 m (7,999 ft) Asphalt; *marginal*
    Runway 17/35: 1,133 m (3,717 ft) Asphalt *inadequate*
    See: https://www.airbus.com/aircraft/passenger-aircraft/a380/airlines-destinations/airport-compatibility.html

    Runway length, and other factors including elevation AMSL and air temperature/density, determine effective takeoff weight and range.

    Per “Western Sydney Airport Draft EIS – Volume 1 Project Background”, p154, for a Boeing 777-300ER aircraft with 100-passenger load, the estimated range for nominated takeoff runway lengths are:
    2,600 m runway length: 5,250 nautical miles (9,723 km)
    3.000 m runway length: 6,700 nautical miles (12,408 km)
    3,700 m runway length: 7,900 nautical miles (14,631 km)

    Why not quarantine all (no exceptions) international air passengers and aircrew entering Australia at LEA and/or KTR, at least until vaccine(s) have demonstrated full efficacy/effectiveness? Arguments for/against?

  8. I’ve just heard a snippet of Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk speaking at today’s 10am press conference indicating that she will be suggesting to the Commonwealth that quarantined passengers from overseas be put in accommodation at remote mining camps.

    I’d suggest there are plenty of mining camps around Rockhampton.

    [Thought bubble following]
    Perhaps bring some of the international passengers into Rockhampton (ROK) airport and transfer to the mining accommodation?

    Interesting to know how much accommodation is also around Learmonth (LEA) and Katharine (KTR) airports.

    Perhaps Avalon (AVV) airport could be considered an international travel only airport?

    The other aspect in question is the adequacy and proximity of medical facilities near these locations.

    Perhaps these locations have a better chance of preventing quarantine breaches?

  9. Peter Collignon’s article is not a dodgy article. It presents one informed point of view about the appropriate use of lockdowns which has a different weighting on the costs and benefits of lockdowns to some other infectious disease experts. Its a useful contribution to the scientific debate we need to have in this area, and the evidence from the NSW outbreak will bolster Collignon’s point of view or be an argument against it. So far the length of the NSW outbreak is evidence against Collignon’s argument.
    Tony Blakely – an expert epidemiologist in this area – argued the other day that both the short sharp lockdown approach favoured by most States and the more relaxed NSW approach have proven to be effective in eliminating outbreaks. But the NSW approach takes longer, so that is a cost to that approach which needs to be weighed up against the lesser social and perhaps economic costs of the NSW approach. (I don’t know whether the NSW approach does actually lead to lower economic costs. It could be the longer length of the outbreak leads to more economic costs. I don’t have the data to know one way or the other).
    Tony Blakely did also say that he thought the NSW approach would not be effective against a highly infectious COVID strain like the so-called UK variant. So that’s another variable to toss into the mix when we consider what sort of control measures to use.
    I’m pleased that different States are using somewhat different control measures, as it gives the authorities and the public a chance to compare different approaches. Its one of the advantages of a Federation. But we should avoid getting into tribal positions on this matter. Let the evidence decide.

  10. @JohnGoss My problem in this post isn’t with Collignon’s policy position, but with the dodgy way he argues for it, as I spelt out. If you want to defend him on that score, feel free.

  11. One dodgy argument is that border closures are inappropriate because there had been no recent transmission of COVID in regional areas.

    This excludes those who travel interstate between major cities.


  12. “Let the evidence decide.” – John Goss.

    The evidence has decided. Worldwide, the nations which implemented hard-lock downs early and new hard lock-downs as required, plus all other necessary measures, all tending to an eradication attempt, have been the nations which have coped very well with this pandemic. The nations which have prevaricated, vacillated and hedged have all had catastrophic public health disasters. Many are still in that mode right now, very close to a year after the virus was first widely known.

    The mutated strains which are causing immense problems, exist because those nations failed to lock down in the first place. Wide, pandemic spread has given the virus many millions of petri-dishes (human lungs) in which to evolve. Those who failed to lock-down early have been responsible for over 2 million avoidable deaths and counting plus all the mutated strains we now face. The lock-down-to-elimination advocates have been fully justified. That outcome was never a certainty but it was a high probability that the lock-down-to-elimination strategy would be justified. Failure has proven this case to a level of extant proof which paradoxically would not have come to pass if we had eradicated successfully.

    The virus which causes COVID-19 is SARS-CoV2. That is “Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”. That pedigree alone alerted all competent virologists and epidemiologists and all biological sciences literate laypersons that it had a high potential to be very dangerous. All of these persons, apart from a few incompetent standouts, advocated a hard lock-down and elimination strategy from the outset.

    It was the persons not literate in the biological and general sciences, like politicians, ex-politicians, neoliberal (market fundamentalist) capitalists and various media talking-heads (probably at the orders of media bosses) who advocated the very foolish herd immunity strategy and “flattening the curve”. I was somewhat misled very early on (circa March 2021). I did not expect the level of transmissibity of the new virus, which soon enough became evident. As soon as that data came in and I did some lay research, I realized the herd immunity thesis was false in the senses that (a) the virus was uncontrollable at any level other than eradication or near-eradication and (b) long-lasting natural immunity was not necessarily guaranteed.

    How, after the last year, some advocates can still put their heads above the parapet for laxer controls is beyond me, I must admit. The costs (human and economic) of letting this virus break beyond all controls are orders of magnitude greater than the costs of temporary hard lock-downs in ring-fenced areas. There is no economic or human cost comparison. We do not want to keep playing Russian Roulette with this virus. Sooner or latter the “bullet in the chamber”, will splinter into multiple reproduction lines and we will look like the USA or UK; at least until if and when we have safe, effective vaccination, which in itself is still not a certainty.

  13. Correction: My point (b) above should have referred to acquired immunity, although natural immunity plus acquired immunity can “add up” to herd immunity.

  14. I don’t find your arguments against Collignon’s position convincing John. I think your preference for short sharp lockdowns is more correct than his position, but I think you got to that on the basis of your intuition rather than the somewhat dodgy arguments you present. Let me go through your arguments one by one.
    • Quiggin: ‘The text doesn’t mention mask mandates at all, and captioned photo implies that government initiated this measure rather than being pushed into it, after failure to require them led to Berala cluster (at least according to AMA)’

    Why does he need to mention mask mandates to make his argument? This is not an argument against his position.

    • Quiggin: ‘Opposes border closures while claiming Victorian response as a success’

    He himself points out that the Victorian action was an example which goes against his argument that control can be achieved by ‘a combination of good testing, contact tracing, quarantining of close contacts and limits on the size of indoor events’. But he seems to be arguing that because of improvements in management of factors that were previously poorly managed, we won’t need to go down the lockdown route again. The point is though, his argument is not inconsistent as you are implying.

    • Quiggin: ‘Collignon claims that “many prominent individuals” demanded a total lockdown. One link is to Norman Swan, who did suggest it. The other is to Raina McIntyre who said a short lockdown might be necessary if case numbers rose’.

    How is this an argument against Collignon’s position? As context, he is simply stating that ‘many prominent individuals make dire predictions about what may happen in Australia’ which I think is pretty accurate. And then he goes on to put an alternative point of view. He did not say ‘Collignon claims that “many prominent individuals” demanded a total lockdown’. You are conflating two of his sentences.

    • Quiggin. ‘There’s no discussion of the SCG test, which may still turn out badly, despite original superspreader plans being wound back under pressure’

    How is this an argument against Collignon’s position? The public debate on the Test is a prime example of a tendency towards panic particularly among journalists. Just because it is a mass gathering does not mean that it cannot be run in a very low risk way. And so far there is no evidence it was a superspreader event. The reaction against the Sydney Test is a prime example of binary thinking. ‘Because it’s a mass gathering it must be bad’. Instead in these circumstances we should carefully evaluate whether it is possible to run a safe Test given the epidemiological context. And that is what NSW Health was doing. Which is the opposite of the panicked reactions of many in the public square.

    • Quiggin. ‘Premature triumphalism given that cases and venues of concern keep on coming. A short lockdown might have been a better choice, than daily announcements sending hundreds or thousands into isolation’.

    I think this is a good argument. The evidence from Australia’s experience is more and more favouring in many cases a short hard lockdown as part of the control measures for an outbreak. But I agree with Collignon that some of the States are going overboard with their isolation/quarantining requirements as part of their control measures. For example, Queensland and WA have I think been unnecessarily strict with their restrictions on regional NSW residents.

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