Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister tipped to become a UK trade envoy, has railed against Covid “health dictatorships”, saying the economic cost of lockdowns meant families should be allowed to consider letting elderly relatives with the coronavirus die by letting nature take its course.
He claimed it was costing the Australian government as much as $200,000 (£110,000) to give an elderly person an extra year’s life, substantially beyond what governments would usually pay for life-saving drugs.
Abbott said not enough politicians were “thinking like health economists trained to pose uncomfortable questions about the level of deaths we might have to live with”. More politicians should have asked whether the cure was proportionate to the disease.
Starting from day of first reported death
The goal of governments had moved from preventing hospitals being overwhelmed with coronavirus patients to achieving zero transmission, he said, with the aim of preserving almost every life at almost any cost. Abbott claimed the cure for the pandemic, including extended lockdowns, was creating a “something for nothing mindset” among young people living on furlough.
“It’s a bad time for anyone with the virus, but it is also a bad time for people that would rather not be dictated to by officials, however well meaning,” he said in a speech at the Policy Exchange thinktank in London.
“In this climate of fear it was hard for governments to ask ‘how much is a life worth?’ because every life is precious, and every death is sad, but that has never stopped families sometimes electing to make elderly relatives as comfortable as possible while nature takes its course.”
Abbott said he could not comment on his likely appointment to the UK board of trade by Boris Johnson, saying “it is not yet official”. However, he said he expected the UK and Australia to be able to agree on a full trade deal by the end of the year.
He would be encouraging senior officials in trade talks “not to be held up by things that are not all that important, and not be distracted by things that are not really issues of trade but might be, for argument’s sake, issues of the environment”.
However, it was his remarks on Covid that showed how Abbott’s courting of controversy made his possible appointment by Johnson a high political risk.
He said Australia was suffering not just from a stop-start economy, but a stop-start life in which young people were losing a sense of personal responsibility.
“It is not possible to keep 40% of the workforce on some kind of government benefit, and to accumulate a deficit not seen since the second world war, while the world goes into a slump not seen since the Great Depression, caused as much by the government response as the virus itself.”
In the absence of a vaccine, “we have to at some point just live with this virus”.
He said the response to the virus was causing a form of deep psychic damage. “People once sturdily self-reliant looking to the government more than ever for support and sustenance, a something-for-nothing mindset, reinforced amongst young people spared the need of searching for jobs.
“Every day it goes on, it risks establishing a new normal,” he said, adding: “Fear of falling sick is stopping us from feeling fully alive.”
Abbott also claimed officials were getting trapped in crisis mode for longer than they needed, “especially if the crisis adds to their authority or boosts their standing. Six months into this pandemic, the aim in most countries is still to preserve almost every life at almost any cost, with renewed lockdowns [being] governments’ instinctive response to any increase in the virus.
“On the way their objectives have shifted from flattening the curve so hospitals would not be overwhelmed, to suppression, to zero community transmission.”
He accused the media of “virus hysteria in a bid to show the deadly threat is not confined to the very old, the already very sick or those exposed to massive viral loads”.
In criticising Australia’s response, Abbott’s target was largely the country’s state premiers, rather than the prime minister. He accused the premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, of conducting a “health dictatorship” by putting 5.5 million Melburnians under ‘‘virtual house arrest with a curfew from 8pm to 5am”.
“After six months it is surely time to relax the rules so that individuals can take more personal responsibility and make more of their own decisions about the risks they are prepared to run.
“The generation of the second world war had been prepared to risk life to preserve freedom. This generation is ready to risk freedom to preserve life.”
He said his trip to the UK had been privately funded, and special permission had been granted for him to travel.
Numbers don‘t lie. Politicians do. I am not afraid of any virus that has over a 99% survival rate.