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Doctors Nick Coatsworth and Norman Swan war on claim Covid death toll like ‘plane crash every week’

Two of Australia’s best known doctors have renewed their long term animosity with competing views on how to describe Australia’s Covid-19 death toll. 

ABC’s presenter Dr Norman Swan said Covid deaths amounted to ‘jet crashes every week’, which, with around 300 deaths every week seems a reasonable comparison. 

But Dr Nick Coatsworth, Australia’s former deputy chief health officer, said this is not accurate as Covid deaths are disproportionately older people.

‘A plane crash has anywhere between babies through to people at the end of their lives and everything in between,’ Dr Coatsworth said.

Dr Nick Coatsworth (pictured), Australia’s former deputy chief medical officer, has had a long running difference of opinion with fellow physician, Dr Norman Swan

‘So it’s not a reasonable analogy to draw when we’re talking about largely the very frail elderly, who are very likely to succumb to infection whether there’s a pandemic or not.’

Radio 2GB’s Ben Fordham called Dr Swan a ‘fearmonger’ and ‘Covid bogeyman’ for his jet crash comments, to which he replied: ‘I couldn’t care less what people call me, I just care about lives being saved.’

The disagreements between Dr Coatsworth and Dr Swan over how to deal with Covid goes back almost as long as the pandemic itself. 

Last week, Dr Coatsworth took a swipe at those continuing to demand more Covid rules – and says tough restrictions did more harm than good for many people.

‘We locked down our society, stopped children attending school, closed playgrounds, fined the least fortunate, separated families, created mental illness, all in the name of protecting our most vulnerable, yet for some it will never be enough.

‘When will the moralising stop?’ he wrote.  

Dr Coatsworth’s views are very different to some more risk-averse commentators such as Dr Swan and former Australian Medical Association president Kerryn Phelps, who favour restrictions.

‘The problem is that group is loud and it’s influential,’ he said. ‘It’s a bit exhausting really.

ABC presenter Dr Norman Swan (pictured) is risk-averse when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic

ABC presenter Dr Norman Swan (pictured) is risk-averse when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic

‘I thought it’d be all done and dusted by now – not the pandemic – but this bloody argument.

‘It’s bad for the punters as well. No one wants to see duelling experts, but then you have a choice. Do you shut up and let them run the narrative?’

Last February, Dr Coatsworth told 2GB that pro-restriction advocates such as Dr Swan and Dr Phelps needed to recognise Australia’s policies should be designed to protect the vulnerable now that most of the country has been vaccinated.

‘I think perhaps they’ve got this idea that it’s dangerous to say: ‘It’s OK if someone dies with co-morbidities or they were old’.

‘Well that’s not what anyone is saying. People are saying there are vulnerable people in our society, there always has been, there always will be, so the social safety net for them is not mass community restrictions two years into a pandemic,’ he said. 

A young woman is pictured getting the Pfizer vaccine at the Royal Exhibition Building Vaccination Centre in Melbourne on August 25, 2021

A young woman is pictured getting the Pfizer vaccine at the Royal Exhibition Building Vaccination Centre in Melbourne on August 25, 2021

Dr Coatsworth said community-wide restrictions weren’t fair on the rest of the community, who are already protected by a robust health care system alongside mass vaccination.

‘We’ve got that, and so the vulnerable are protected and so we can move forward with this, so I do think the people like (Dr Swan and Dr Phelps) need to change their perspective and move with the times,’ he said.

In August 2021, Dr Coatsworth blasted Dr Swan for failing to ‘accurately report’ on Covid after he compared Sydneysiders lining up for a vaccination to ‘guinea pigs’.

When asked about their dispute, Dr Swan said he thought Dr Coatsworth was ‘angry’ with him for criticising government medical experts who originally believed Covid spread mostly via respiratory droplets rather than in the air. 

A drive through patient is pictured getting vaccinated for Covid-19 in Melton, Victoria on Sunday, August 8, 2021

A drive through patient is pictured getting vaccinated for Covid-19 in Melton, Victoria on Sunday, August 8, 2021

‘I think he’s angry with me,’ Dr Swan told The Australian at the time.

‘I think it’s annoyed him that I have called out the view that was prevalent in the government throughout much of 2020 that airborne spread wasn’t important.’ 

‘I’m not annoyed with Norman Swan, but in my opinion he has failed to acknowledge and accurately report on the movement in government policy, which has acknowledged a greater role for airborne transmission,’ Dr Coatsworth responded.

He also attacked Dr Swan’s ‘guinea pig’ comment, saying ABC has a responsibility ‘to report as accurately as possible during a disaster’.

‘Calling the entire population of greater Sydney guinea pigs does not fall into that category,’ he said.

Dr Nick Coatsworth (pictured left) has long called for Covid restrictions to be removed when they stop working

Dr Nick Coatsworth (pictured left) has long called for Covid restrictions to be removed when they stop working 

When Dr Swan made his ‘guinea pig’ comment, he was not claiming the vaccines were experimental – only that the government’s strategy of using vaccination to control the outbreak was untested.

‘I don’t think that this has been tried anywhere else in the world where you’re trying to use vaccination to curve an outbreak,’ he said.

‘And in a sense, the residents of New South Wales, or Greater Sydney, are guinea pigs.’

But Dr Coatsworth said vaccines are used to stop outbreaks all around the world – and even pointed to his own field experience in Africa.

Sydneysiders are pictured exercising at Bondi as Covid-19 restrictions were eased in September last year

Sydneysiders are pictured exercising at Bondi as Covid-19 restrictions were eased in September last year

‘No, Dr Swan, they are not guinea pigs. I vaccinated during measles in Chad in 2005,’ he wrote in a response on Twitter.

‘Rapid vaccination during an epidemic is part of epidemic control. And it’s what every other country has done with Covid-19. Restrictions plus rapid vaccines works.’

The battle between doctors Swan and Coatsworth does not look like ending any time soon.  

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