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Australia's heavy-handed approach to the Covid-19 pandemic has been rebuked by an economist on Q&A, prompting disbelief from fellow panellists who disputed his "disturbing" remarks.
Appearing on the ABC show on Thursday evening, Cameron Murray said the public health response in Australia has not been "ideal".
Discussing whether Australia had become complacent in the wake of the infected Victorian couple who travelled to Queensland by road, Mr Murray sparked outrage by suggesting people were right to make their own risk assessments.
"I think people are right to be complacent because I think compared to what we see in the media, I think people have a better judge of the risks than what we've seen in the media," Mr Murray said.
He said he had analysed pandemic plans from before Covid-19 and said they did not recommend key aspects of state and federal governments' pandemic responses.
When he suggested children did not need to be vaccinated before opening borders, Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid hit out at Mr Murray.
"Are you seriously suggesting that Covid doesn't affect young people or that border closures haven't made us almost the most successful country in the world when it comes to managing this pandemic?" Dr Khorshid asked.
In a barbed comment, ANU epidemiologist Kamalini Lokuge asked: "Can I speak as a public health expert and not an economist?"
She explained the reason to vaccinate a certain percentage of the population, including younger people, was to ensure there was not high levels of transmission in the country.
Epidemiologist points to UK as cautionary tale
She said the UK was a prime example of opening up too early despite having about half of its adult population vaccinated.
"Their Prime Minister, their Secretary of the Treasury have said we may need to delay opening up because we've got a new variant and got increasing hospitalisations and increased number of cases," Dr Lokuge said.
"So I think waiting a few months to get to a level of vaccine coverage where we know we can control this disease without stringent measures is a no-brainer."
She said those countries that did not take a cautious approach not only suffered a surge in deaths but subsequent economic downturn from imposed restrictions to deal with surging cases.
But Mr Murray argued the emergence of vaccines was a "stroke of luck" and there was no plan for Australia if an effective vaccine did not emerge.
Political editor of The Age and SMH, Peter Hartcher, said he was "disturbed" by Mr Murray's comments.
And Twitter users – including Nobel prize winning immunologist Professor Peter Doherty – were in agreement, many criticising the economist's contrarian viewpoint.
#QandA A pandemic plan is only meaningful when it's developed in the context of the characteristics of the pathogen causing the pandemic. If this had been a pandemic caused by a novel 'flu virus, we would have had vaccines in 6 months.
— Prof. Peter Doherty (@ProfPCDoherty) June 10, 2021
One Melburnian who said they has lost their job during lockdown said Mr Murray needed to "grow up" and that economists should not gamble with the lives of Australians.
"I don’t think that economists should have any say in the public policy surrounding a global pandemic," another said.
It's not the first time an economist has prompted anger on the show, with UNSW economist Professor Gigi Foster telling host Hamish Macdonald in March that Australia needed to do "what's best for human welfare as a whole... and it is not determined solely by whether people are suffering and dying from Covid".
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