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Omicron hysteria shows why we must protect our freedoms



Victorians will be familiar with the state government’s efforts to avoid scrutiny, from its refusal to release the health advice underpinning its drastic pandemic restrictions, to its evasions during the hotel quarantine inquiry.This week the Herald Sun obtained documents from the Victorian Supreme Court showing the Andrews government attempted to suppress for five years a court ruling showing it had no legal basis for making assurances that QR code contact tracing details would always be protected.Undoubtedly there will be many more secrets to uncover in the years ahead, emphasising the need for a royal commission into how Australian governments have responded in the pandemic.Among the questions such an inquiry should ask is why governments overreacted to the Omicron variant of Covid-19.Politicians and the media have been obsessed with Omicron in recent months, but the reality is that it is not worth the attention it has been given.Dr Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South Africa Medical Association who first notified the world of the new strain, regards the response to Omicron as “hysteria”.In an article for the Daily Mail, Dr Coetzee noted “you only have to look at the picture in South Africa, where the world’s first known cases of Omicron were spotted, to realise this reaction is out of all proportion to the risks posed by this variant.”Despite only about a quarter of the South African population being vaccinated, Dr Coetzee notes the Omicron symptoms are generally much milder and the unvaccinated fight off Omicron much easier than earlier variants.This is all in contrast to the alternate reality of Omicron presented by alarmist media andopportunistic politicians, who rely on this supposedly “dangerous” new strain to retain and in some cases expand their health powers.Just before Christmas the perennially flawed and pessimistic modelling by the Doherty Institute predicted — or speculated — that Australia would have 200,000 Omicron cases a day before the end of January.Conveniently these predictions were released a day before a national cabinet meeting where – lo and behold — the prime minister and state premiers were being encouraged to respond to Omicron by agreeing to impose harsher mask mandates and to change the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include a third injection known as a “booster” shot.The Andrews government also cited the Omicron variant for its Public Health andWellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021, which dramatically expands the government public health powers during a pandemic.In late November, weeks before any deaths were blamed on Omicron, Health Minister Martin Foley argued the emergence of the new strain “highlight precisely why it is that our public health officials need these powers”. Days later this argument reportedly helped to sway the last vote the state government needed in the upper house to support the new laws.As Institute of Public Affairs research notes, the legislation would effectively give to the premier and the government dictatorial powers without oversight or control from the courts or parliament.Arbitrary pandemic powers can be exercised if a pandemic declaration is in force, which can be extended indefinitely. These powers were given to the government on the basis of a strain of Covid that The London Telegraph reports “may already be running out of steam” at its epicentre in South Africa.It seems often that the only skerrick of rational political leadership among the states is to be found north of the Victorian border.NSW Premier Dom Perrottet last week chastised the media for focusing on total case numbers rather than hospitalisations and stressed the need to live with the virus. This was in the context of the government winding back various Covid restrictions and vaccine requirements.But at the very same press conference, Health Minister Brad Hazzard undercut the government’s message by sharing speculation that the state could see 25,000 cases per day by the end of January.It’s not hard to guess which message made the headlines.Polling of more than 1000 NSW residents commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs and undertaken between July 24-28 found 59 per cent of respondents believed the media had been alarmist in its reporting on the Covid-19 situation in Sydney.They are right, and the consequences are not trivial. Just one day after the NSW restrictions were wound back, NSW Jobs Minister Stuart Ayres declared the government would not hesitate to lock down unvaccinated residents if it felt necessary to do so.In March 2020 Australians tolerated the restrictions on the basis that the significant disruption to their way of life would only be short-lived.Over time, as “two weeks to slow the spread” dragged on (and on), many Australians began to realise that the political class would not so easily surrender the powers that the citizens had too willingly given them.But enough is enough. Omicron highlights the importance of protecting our rights and freedoms from those who want to protect us from the virus.Morgan Begg is director of the legal rights program at the Institute of Public Affairs

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