The politics of 2021 was meant to be all about what would happen after the “worst year ever” and how soon we could return to whatever “normal” used to be.

How soon could the government roll out a vaccine? Would it wind back business subsidies and income support without risking recession? Could we safely reopen borders for our stricken outward facing industries like international education and overseas tourism?

The political contest of ideas was also being cast forward. How can we inch towards meaningful energy transition? How can we make our workplace laws respond to the fragmentation of the gig economy? How can we impose some sort of rules around big tech to ensure a functioning liberal democratic society?

In short, how soon could we consign the disruption of 2020 to bed and get back to the business of living without the constraints of a once in a century pandemic?

Now it seems we were getting ahead of ourselves. The arrival in Australia of new virulent strains of Covid-19, summer quarantine breaches in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and now a fresh lockdown of Melbourne shows any hope of a speedy return to life as we knew it appears to be wishful thinking.

While the Morrison government starts the year with strong public confidence in its handling of the crisis, the critical challenge it now faces is how it balances the economic welfare and mental and physical health of 25 million Australians with the thousands of expats who have put themselves in the queue to come home.

According to the latest Essential Report, the vast majority of Australians are ready for the government to keep our borders shut until the global situation is brought under control.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements about the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia and our national borders?

The responses to these statements may appear slightly contradictory: we want life to go back to normal but we also want the government to control the borders. Maybe the explanation is that people recognise you can’t have the former without the latter.

In light of these sentiments, the political risks inherent in the ongoing repatriation of nationals and the special exceptions for sporting teams and movie stars may be becoming too hot to handle.

Which is where the latest battle in commonwealth-state responsibility will be critical. Right now, the federal government approves the inward flow of returning citizens and exceptional cases, but the states carry the can for the actual quarantine measures. But given the choice, the vast majority of respondents believe it is the federal government – with control of our international borders – that needs to take control.

Which of the following statements about Australia’s international borders and the Covid-19 hotel quarantine system for returning travellers is closest to your view?

When people talk about the successful response to the first wave a year ago it was due to the federal and state governments recognising their different roles and supporting each other to discharge them.

As the gravity of crisis became apparent, the federal government closed borders to tourists, students and immigrants, taking the natural advantage of our island nation, and stemming the flow of new infections. When thousands of businesses closed in lockdown, the federal government was compelled to pull its economic levers with eye-watering spending to support businesses keep staff on the books and doubling income support for those out of work.

State governments deployed their expertise in public health, preparing hospitals and rolling out contract tracing and rapidly shifting education online. Where outbreaks did occur, state governments took control, making calls on restrictions and lockdowns and determining whether state borders should close.

Where there were problems was where those clear lines of responsibility blurred; the grey area between the federal control of aged care and the state control of hospitals and, critically, the management of hotel quarantine.

Through much of this the prime minister managed to skate above the fray, offering support to allies, the odd jibe to political foes, but largely handing day to day responsibility and, critically, accountability to the states.

But as the virus mutates and the pandemic enters its second year, the public – not for the first time in recent political memory – seeks leadership on strong borders and demands active risk mitigation to maintain their integrity.

Now, these virulent strains shift the goalposts on containment, challenge the efficacy of localised lockdowns and contact tracing, and ask fresh questions of the current quarantine strategy which is based in our largest cities where the risk of a breach is greatest.

The pushback from businesses desperate for inward flows of people will be intense but another year of rolling lockdowns could be even more costly: economically, socially and for – the government – politically.

All the great plans for 2021 hinge on three things: keeping the mutated virus out, ensuring an effective vaccine is delivered at the points of maximum leakage and keeping local lockdowns to an absolute minimum.

The people of Australia may have just written the PM’s job description for 2021.

Peter Lewis will discuss the findings of the latest Guardian Essential Report with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy at 1pm on Tuesday

This content first appear on the guardian

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