PM urges Australia to open both eyes to a COVID-19 future

By Melissa Coade

August 23, 2021

Scott Morrison
A new federal funding announcement is aimed at attracting international visitors to Australia’s regions. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Prime minister Scott Morrison has penned an opinion piece about Australia’s COVID-19 situation, declaring that it is time to focus on hospitalisations rather than case numbers. 

On Sunday the pm’s media team issued a 721-word message directly from Morrison, outlining his vision for how Australians can get their ‘lives back in a COVID world’. The views were reiterated by Morrison during a press conference in Canberra on Monday morning to stress that Australians needed a ‘plan out’ and were tiring of being locked down.

“We have the plan, we are making great progress to achieve the goals of that plan,” Morrison said, noting that a pathway out of the current public health restrictions affecting most of the country would give Australians the hope they needed.

According to the opinion piece, Australia’s initial fixation with the tally of positive COVID cases was justified because little — if anything — was known about the virus in the early stages of the pandemic and the government had no way to knowing if the local hospital system could cope. 

A lot has changed since then. Increasingly we need to look beyond just the case numbers to know what our future holds. How we can keep safe and how we get our lives back in a COVID world,” Morrison said. 

“Case numbers are important, but they are not the whole story.”

The uncertainty about Australia’s future in the context of the one-in-100-year pandemic has diminished since the initial outbreak, the pm said, citing new knowledge gained by ICUs, vaccines, and the sotrovimab drug which has received TGA approval for treatment of COVID-positive patients. Overall, since Australia’s hospital and public health systems were now prepared to meet the public health challenge of the virus, more could be done to cushion the economy, he said. 

Our hospital and public health systems are prepared, they have held up to the challenge and continue to do so. And where they have to be reinforced we know how to do that,” Morrison said.

“This all means we can battle Delta and seriously reduce how much harm it does to our health, our way of life and our economy.”

From a public policy perspective, the pm recommended shifting discourse from case numbers to looking at how many people were becoming seriously ill and requiring hospitalisation. This was the approach to manage other infectious diseases, he added, and Sydney’s example showed the impact of vaccination on transmission rates were promising. 

“So while right now our national strategy is necessarily about suppressing the virus and vaccinating as many people as possible, a one-eyed focus on just case numbers overlooks the fact that less people are getting seriously ill, let alone dying,” Morrison said. 

“The data shows that after an AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccination, you’re 86 to 87% less likely to end up in hospital or an ICU, and while figures aren’t confirmed about how much vaccination reduces transmission, the evidence from the recent outbreak in Sydney is really strong.”

The pm added that inoculating children over 12 would be the next focus of the national vaccination plan and once 70-80% of the Australian population had been vaccinated, the country would be in a position to ‘start claiming back what COVID has been taking away from us’.

In the latest case numbers coming out of NSW over the weekend, children made up a significant proportion of cases that had been infected by the more transmissible Delta variant. Of 830 locally acquired cases, 204 were children aged 0-9 years, and 276 were aged 10-19 years in NSW at the weekend. 

Morrison also took aim at the premiers and chief ministers, underscoring that they had committed to a national plan that would deliver fewer lockdowns and more freedoms once these vaccination targets had been achieved. The opinion piece did not clarify whether the 70% and 80% vaccination targets of the national plan would include children in the eligible population total. 

“It’s always darkest before the dawn, and these hard lockdowns are imposing a heavy toll. They are sadly necessary for now, and we will keep providing health and income support to get people through, but they won’t be necessary for too much longer.

“This doesn’t mean people won’t get sick, but with achieving our vaccination targets, a strong public health system, retaining common sense public hygiene measures and more effective treatments for COVID-19 we can get on with our new normal, and treat COVID like other infectious diseases,” Morrison said. 

The measure of Australia’s success against COVID-19 should start to use hospital numbers as its yardstick, the pm concluded.

“The case numbers will likely rise when we soon begin to open up. That is inevitable,” Morrison said.

“Rising cases need not impact our plan to reopen, and reopen as soon we can. I know it seems pretty dark now, but it’s always darkest before the dawn, and dawn’s coming. So please hang in there.”

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