Australia has changed its covid-19 engagement strategy: time to abandon lockdowns and “get out of the cave,” announced Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
With vaccination accelerated, he says Australians will soon “live with the virus” for the first time. In other words, they will not try to eliminate your circulation.
It’s a drastic change for a country used to seeing few cases of infections.
What was the strategy?
The strategy adopted by the country was what some called the “Australian fortress”.
Australia intended to maintain the “zero covid-19” strategy by restricting the entry of foreigners, tracking all infections, and closing state borders after outbreaks.
Lockdowns in all cities and states have often been enacted – sometimes after a single case.
Melbourne, for example, experienced more than 200 days of lockdown over that period.
These measures have been criticized for their cost and for people’s mental well-being.
But so far, they have prevented outbreaks of covid-19 cases, thousands of deaths and allowed many Australians to live freely.
So what has changed?
The Delta variant changed that Australian landscape. In June, it consolidated in Sydney before spreading to Melbourne and the capital Canberra.
State governments put their capitals back under lockdown.
Currently, one in two Australians must stay at home.
This helped to suppress the spread of cases. In Sydney, the R number – the virus shedding rate – dropped from 5 to 1.3.
But officials said the “zero covid” strategy is no longer achievable.
This has heightened criticism of the Morrison administration of Australia’s low vaccination levels, with many accusing him of complacency. Morrison had claimed in April that vaccination “was not a race”.
But he now follows the New South Wales state government in saying that vaccines are the only way to reopen Australia. The state of Victoria – where the city of Melbourne is located – also abandoned the strategy this week.
What’s the new plan?
About 36% of Australians over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated – far from enough to get out of lockdowns, experts say.
“This marmot day has got to end, and it’s going to end when we start getting to 70% and 80%,” Morrison said last week.
Vaccination in Australia is accelerating – now the country is vaccinating faster than the UK and US did at their peak vaccinations.
At current rates, Australia could vaccinate 70% of its 16+ year olds by mid-October.
The nation has also started vaccinating children over 12 years old.
The idea will then start to alleviate the lockdowns – that way, vaccinated people will have more freedom.
But the country plans to continue testing and tracking, maintaining milder restrictions such as wearing masks and social distancing. Minor lockdowns will also be a possibility, but they are considered unlikely.
“The proposed plan is actually very careful,” says Ivo Mueller, an expert on population health and immunity at the University of Melbourne.
“It’s not ‘Freedom Day’, it’s not ‘let’s throw everything out the window and go out partying’ – that’s not what’s being proposed.”
When will international borders be opened?
This will happen when Australia reaches 80% of people vaccinated. But travel will only be open to countries designated as “safe” and to people who have been vaccinated.
New South Wales State Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian said she is planning a reopening in November, but some experts say it could happen sooner.
“With double vaccination at 80%, we plan to allow our citizens to have access to international travel and also to welcome Australians home through Sydney Airport,” Berejiklian said this week.
The national plan also allows for “travel bubbles” to safe countries, indicating that vaccinated foreigners will also be able to enter.
Qantas airline signaled the reopening of routes in December to the UK, US, Singapore, Canada and Japan.
But is everyone happy?
Polls show that 62% of Australians support the government’s reopening plan.
But many Australians aren’t safe with the idea of ”living with the virus” once they’ve become accustomed to low rates of infection.
The government model, prepared by the University of Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, estimates that reopening with 70% vaccinated could lead to 13 deaths in six months – provided testing and tracking are working well. But that number could rise to 1,500 if there are fewer health measures, according to the projection.
It was just this week that Australia recorded its thousandth death by covid-19, the last G20 country to do so.
So, psychologically, a big shift in mindset, says Mueller.
More than 90% of cases in Australia have occurred around Sydney and Melbourne. But six of Australia’s eight states and territories saw little of the virus.
“They basically have no transmission and no restrictions. People basically live normal lives, so telling them they have to face the virus is very, very difficult,” says Mueller.
Therefore, parts of the covid-19 free country disagree with the federal government and other states on the strategy.
Under Australia’s system of federalism, state governments have control over health, policing and internal borders.
Queensland and Western Australia (Western Australia) are now refusing to open their states, while Sydney sees more than 1,000 infections a day.
“I can’t understand why there are people out there saying we should deliberately get infected,” said Western Australia Prime Minister Mark McGowan.
But Morrison argues that these states cannot hide from the virus forever.
“Most Australian states need to realize that eventually they will have to move away from the zero covid strategy because it’s simply not sustainable forever,” says Mueller.
What can Australia learn from abroad?
Much can be learned from other countries about how to safely reopen and adjust risk, experts say.
Could social distancing be a requirement in schools, such as in France and Mexico? With travel, could Australia adopt rapid diagnostic tests used in Europe and North America? What is the best vaccine passport to allow safe movement?
Experts emphasize that Australia now needs to focus on vaccinating at-risk groups, such as indigenous communities, before reopening.
They note that Australia’s reopening plan has also been shaped by the experiences of the UK and the US.
Although Delta has caused waves of infection in both nations, vaccinations are greatly reducing serious illness and death.
“This makes us sure that we are on the right path with vaccines,” says Mueller.
Australia’s plan to reopen with 80% vaccinated is a higher level than the 54% adopted by the UK, where the vaccination level is now at around 80% of the eligible population. In Denmark, where 70% are vaccinated, almost all restrictions have been lifted.
Singapore, which hit 80% this week, is also at the forefront of its reopening plans, but is taking a cautious approach like Australia, keeping travel only to countries considered safe and restrictions such as wearing masks.
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