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Why the next eight weeks will be critical to WA’s COVID reopening plans

Angelique Coetzee, also the president of the South African Medical Association, told me on 6PR Breakfast on Monday that symptoms were very mild: fatigue and maybe a sore throat but no respiratory problems, falling oxygen levels or serious illness requiring hospitalisation.

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That is consistent with the handful of Omicron cases detected in Australia so far, which have been very mild or asymptomatic.

“If it can stay mild like now we will be extremely happy going forward,” Dr Coetzee said, but it is obviously early days.

It’s clear that McGowan was bruised a fortnight ago by criticism of the fact cricketers looked like they would get special treatment just prior to the rest of the community being granted their freedom to travel again.

It was unfamiliar territory for a man who has gotten used to rockstar-like treatment in the WA community for the past 18 months.

There is little evidence anything but a rock solid majority of voters continue to back his pandemic management and he has shown no inclination to pivot away from “West versus the rest” political rhetoric.

Yesterday he reverted to talking tough about 14 day requirements as WA Cricket chief executive Christina Matthew’s confidence Perth would hang on to the match plummets.

The Premier is clear publicly that wives and families will not be able to come to Perth, and the status of 150 broadcast and support staff is a sticking point too.

Yet just two weeks later it will be safe to open WA to all comers?

There is another dimension here and it goes to public psychology.

Whereas the populations of Sydney and certainly Melbourne – absolutely worn to the bone by lockdowns – have begun to move on from the “threat” phase, what proportion of West Australians, without lived experience, still view the virus as the mortal threat it represented back in March and April 2020?

A difficult adjustment looms whatever the timing and manner of COVID reintroduction to the community.

Meanwhile, under the radar, cracks are beginning to emerge in the performance of the public service, where the ordinary business of administration is showing signs of fracture and neglect.

One public servant recently described to me, in rather eye-opening terms, a “monomaniacal” focus on COVID from the top, where directors-general have been managing upward on a crisis footing for the best part of two years.

Last week, Auditor-General Caroline Spencer released the annual audit results report of the 147 state government entities her office is responsible for overseeing.

“Of great concern,” she wrote, “is the number of entities with serious deficiencies requiring a qualified audit opinion on financial statements, controls, or key performance indicators, increasing from 7 entities last year, to 17 this year, with 31 separate qualification matters. This is the highest number of qualified audit opinions ever reported by my office.”

Too many of these qualifications, she wrote, related to significant deficiencies in payroll and procurement controls and information systems security.

Coming after the (undetected) $27 million Paul Whyte theft in the Department of Housing, the largest corruption scandal in WA history, it is a diabolical state of affairs and the agencies with the biggest number of matters flagged are the mega departments merged in McGowan’s reforms in the name of efficiency.

“Perhaps what these results highlight most clearly to me is that government entities do not have unlimited capacity and capability,” Spencer wrote.

“Senior leaders only have so much bandwidth, and available resources go only so far. Such consequences are relevant when weighing the impact of policy decisions in all operating environments.”

That’s a particularly unsubtle message to a Premier who has himself looked increasingly irritated in the latter months of the year – honestly who could blame him? – and could benefit from a long break over summer. (Maybe, shock horror, outside the WA bubble?)

It will be a theme to watch as the calendar turns to 2022, McGowan’s sixth year in power, a milestone that in ordinary times tends to see governments begin to get a little ragged.

These have not been ordinary times, and with the COVID bandaid about to finally be ripped off, we will see how extraordinary 2022 turns out to be.

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