In Australia, by far the largest single group of people whose source of COVID-19 infection is known, are those infected during overseas travel1. We have known this ever since the pandemic reached these shores some months ago. However, today, March 26th, 2020, at Sydney airport, people were cheek by jowl waiting to go through customs; no social distancing; but with symptom checks; and the urging of arrivals to self-isolate for two weeks. When staff of Australian Border Force were queried about the lack of social distancing, they replied that it was ‘not our problem; that’s biosecurity’2. Where biosecurity staff were, wasn’t explained.
We also know that community transmission in Australia is fairly limited by comparison, but has apparently started to increase, especially in New South Wales, where it is now likely to be the cause of about half of the current cases1. So, social isolation is the key to decreasing the likelihood of community transmission increasing. However, a couple of days ago, Prime Minister Scott Morrison raised eyebrows when, while announcing the forced closure of entire industries for the second time in less than a week, exempted hairdressers and barbershops, allowing them to remain open, provided they keep appointments to 30 minutes or less. Given that people are being told to isolate themselves as much as possible, and to cut personal contact as much as possible, or even to wear masks when out in public, it does make you wonder what the logic was behind this decision. One online wag suggested that it was because Morrison had promised his daughters a haircut, much as he promised them an Hawaiian holiday in the middle of the bushfire crisis.
To say that hairdressers and barbers were ropable about this decision seems to be an understatement. The Australian Hairdressing Council chief executive and small business owner Sandy Chong accusing Morrison of consigning firms to financial ruin. She asked: “Why is he putting our hairdressers and their families at risk [from] the coronavirus by allowing the public to come into salons?” She added that the 40,000 workers in the hairdressing industry are being placed at unnecessary risk trying to comply with social distancing rules, which are unworkable for the types of services they offer3. You may say that they do not have to stay open, and should close. However, if they do so, because they have been given an exemption, they do not receive any assistance from the government. Because of the fear around COVID 19, staff and patrons are staying away anyway. So hairdressers are caught in a cleft stick.
Even weirder, today, Morrison provided a media release which stated:
“Following the receipt of feedback on the practical implementation of measures announced regarding barbers and hairdressers it was agreed by Premiers and Chief Ministers at National Cabinet last night that the instruction regarding 30 minutes per patron will be lifted (effective immediately), but that the 4sqm rule per person must be strictly observed within the premises and that personal contact during the patron’s visit should be minimised wherever possible.
Also it was noted that in hardship cases, States and Territories can provide exemptions in relation to attendance at funerals, but only at the margin.
National Cabinet will meet again on Friday, March 27.”4
This does not explain anything, which for Morrison, is unsurprising. His attitude to his position as prime minister, is for everyone to take what he says as gospel [excuse pun], with any explanations being superfluous. This is not how the premiers and chief ministers seem to be operating, with people like Daniel Andrews (Victoria), Peter Gutwein (Tasmania) and Andrew Barr (Australian Capital Territory) explaining their reasoning and saying what needs to be done, unadorned with flannel like ‘Anzac spirit’ or the ridiculous ‘essential workers are anyone with a job’ (what does that actually mean?).
How one actually maintains ‘social distancing’ when cutting a patron’s hair in a salon is something Morrison does not explain, presumably because he cannot. And why 30 minutes is too short a time in a salon is also something that is not explained. Maybe he promised his daughters highlights as well as a cut.