Scientific modelling rules out UK style ‘freedom day’ but there is hope for Australia in navigating the COVID-19 path

By Melissa Coade

Tuesday August 24, 2021

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian
NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Australian politicians’ stick and carrot messaging over COVID-19 restrictions has confused the general public’s understanding of what has to be done to control the virus and protect themselves, with the Peter Doherty Institute moving to set the record straight.

The Doherty Institute has adapted its science communications for Twitter in step with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s message at the weekend. The Twitter thread also underscored that once Australia has achieved a full vaccination coverage of 70% of the population, ‘optimal public health measures’ — that were not lockdowns — could drive estimated COVID deaths down from 1,457 to only 13.

“Any death is a tragedy, but our health system can cope with this,” the experts at the Doherty Institute said in a Tweet. This would be possible, they added, if Australia’s focus shifted to “keeping the number of people going to hospital and dying at a minimum”.

“We’ve learned from watching countries that have removed all restrictions that there is no ‘freedom day’. We will need to keep some public health measures in place — test, trace, isolate and quarantine — to keep the reproduction number below 1, but as vaccination rates increase, we’ll be able to ease up further and it is unlike that we will need generalised lockdowns,” the Tweet went on.

Commenting on what, if any, impact the exponentially growing COVID case numbers in NSW would have on the institute’s modelling released earlier this month, the scientists warned that with higher case loads, ‘vigilant health interventions’ were needed. 

In NSW presently, the institute said, ongoing ‘test, trace, isolate and quarantine’ measures were keeping the effective reproduction rate of the COVID-19 Delta variant closer to 1.3. With none of these measures, the effective reproduction rate in NSW would be closer to something like 5.

Sticking to these measures would also result in lower hospitalisations and deaths to protect the community and prevent Australia’s healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

“Measures will become more effective with more people vaccinated,” the institute explained.

“We are moving towards these targets at a rapid pace, but we need to keep suppressing COVID-19 through public health measures while we work towards 70%-80% vaccination across the country.”

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has been firm in her view that Australia’s other states and territories should stick to their commitments in the national plan, which was only released with detail to the public on August 3. She has been backed by Scott Morrison, who this week said he expected the states and territories to live up to the plan they initially agreed to.

Unfortunately, Morrison did not address the concerns about whether children aged over 12 should be counted in the 70% vaccination target. Nor has the PM been drawn on WA Premier Mark McGowan’s remarks that the national plan must be revised to consider the record case load being tallied in NSW.

“Just because the NSW government has made a mess of it, doesn’t mean the rest of us should have to suffer,” McGowan said this week.

“They’re [NSW] trying to allege their model is better, even though it’s been a catastrophic failure… we should do everything we can to stay in the state we are currently in without the virus in WA and at the same time, vaccinate like hell,” he said.

As the Guardian explains, the prime minister is setting up the scene so that if the entire nation does not reopen once achieving 70% vaccination rates, the populous can blame the premiers for their ongoing hardship. 

But premiers from other states, like Queensland, with a better grip on COVID case number than in New South Wales, are not sounding as though this is an issue open to negotiation. 

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