THE Australia changed its coping strategy to covid-19: it’s time to abandon the 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. That is, 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 because of 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 Australia scenario. 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 rate at which the virus spreads – has dropped from 5 to 1.3.
But officials said the “zero covid” strategy is no longer achievable.
This has heightened criticism of the Morrison government over 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 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 groundhog 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 begun vaccinating children over 12 years old.
The idea is then to start alleviating the lockdowns – that way, people who have been vaccinated will have more freedom.
But the country plans to continue testing and tracking, maintaining lenient restrictions such as wearing masks and social distance. 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 the trip 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 “travel bubbles” to safe countries, meaning vaccinated foreigners can also enter.
Qantas airline signaled the reopening of routes in December to the UK, USA, Singapore, Canada and Japan.
But is everyone happy?
Polls show that 62% of Australians support the government’s reopening plan.
But many Australians are unsure of the idea of ”living with the virus” after they’ve become accustomed to low infection rates.
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 1000th death by covid-19, the last G20 country to do so.
So psychologically, it’s a big change in mindset, says Mueller.
More than 90% of cases in Australia occurred around Sydney and Melbourne. But six of Australia’s eight states and territories have seen little of the virus.
“They basically have no transmission and no restrictions. People basically live normal lives, so telling them they have to fight the virus is very, very difficult,” says Mueller.
Therefore, covid-19-free parts of the 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 there saying that 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 states in Australia need to realize that eventually they will have to move away from the zero covid strategy because it just isn’t 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 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 already been shaped by the experiences of the UK and the US.
While Delta has caused waves of infection in both nations, vaccinations are greatly reducing serious illnesses and deaths.
“This gives us the certainty 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 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 ahead 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.