Australia’s response to COVID-19 was, until recently, heralded globally and domestically as one of the world’s best. But things don’t look so positive anymore. Australia’s “zero COVID” approach appears increasingly futile and even cruel. The highly infectious Delta variant has frequently escaped Australia’s leaky hotel quarantine system, leading to recurrent and highly disruptive lockdowns of major cities. International borders remain largely closed, stranding thousands of Australians abroad and keeping families apart. Similarly, domestic borders have closed intermittently.
Vaccines are clearly the only way out of this nightmare cycle of lockdowns and isolation. Therefore, the Morrison government has justifiably faced growing public criticism for its poor handling of the vaccination campaign. Vaccines are, however, not a silver bullet. Vaccination does not and cannot eliminate uncertainty and fear, nor does it settle political disagreements over reopening.
Britain’s experience is instructive and shows where Australia will likely be in a few months, as our vaccination drive gathers momentum. Britain has been hit hard by COVID-19, suffering one of the world’s worst outbreaks in terms of mortalities per capita. Nonetheless, Britain’s vaccination program has been a rare success in an otherwise woeful response to the pandemic.
So far Britain has fully vaccinated over 50 per cent of its population — one of the highest rates in the world. Its vulnerable populations — the over-50s and those with underlying conditions — have been almost fully immunised, vastly reducing the risk of hospitalisation and death.
Britain’s vaccination drive has clearly weakened the link between confirmed cases and serious illness and death from COVID-19. Although the number of new confirmed daily cases has increased more than 15-fold since May, now exceeding 30,000, the overall number of COVID-related hospitalisations has increased less than threefold, from around 900 in May to 2,636 as of 7 July. The number of daily mortalities has also increased at roughly the same rate, averaging 23 over the week to 4 July. Although every death is undoubtedly a tragedy to loved ones, the overall number of deaths in England and Wales in the week ending 25 June was actually nearly 8 per cent below the five-year average. Deaths in which COVID-19 was a factor accounted for only 1.1 per cent of the total over the same period. By comparison, the number of deaths recorded in England and Wales in the week to 22 January, at the height of the second wave, was approximately 40 per cent above the five-year average, with COVID-19 accounting for 45 per cent of all deaths.
In short, it appears that, at least for the moment, while vaccination has not eliminated the danger posed by COVID-19 in Britain, it has made it a manageable health problem — one of several confronting the health system — notwithstanding the rapid recent increase in case numbers.
Nonetheless, the UK government’s plan to remove all remaining COVID-related restrictions is heavily contested. Initial plans to open up on 21 June were pushed back to 19 July, due to the spread of the Delta variant. In the lead up to the new “freedom day”, many public health experts and epidemiologists have continued to call for restrictions to remain. Opposition leader Keir Starmer has warned of a “summer of chaos” should the government implement its plan.
Although British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged no more delays, claiming that Britain has to “live with the virus”, reports have circulated that the UK government is considering deploying various measures, even lockdowns, over the next five years to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed during the typically busy winter season. If true, this is a remarkable normalisation of a public health measure that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization and all national governments considered too extreme to even countenance. Perhaps most strikingly, according to a recent survey, sizable minorities in Britain support maintaining some restrictions permanently, irrespective of COVID-19 — restrictions that include: quarantine for international arrivals (35 per cent), social distancing (35 per cent), and masks in public spaces (40 per cent).
Australia has been spared these dilemmas so far because our dismally low vaccination rate has directed critical attention towards the logistics of the vaccination campaign itself. But, rest assured, as vaccination rates go up in the coming months, similar conflicts over reopening will surface here too. If anything, Australia’s commitment to zero COVID to date, and the hardships Australians have endured in order to maintain such a commitment, will likely make the decision to reopen even more contentious than in Britain.
The British case clearly shows that vaccination can drastically reduce COVID-related hospitalisations and deaths, but cannot by itself eliminate fear or resolve policy disagreements. COVID-induced uncertainty will be with us for a long time to come. New variants will continue to emerge. Vaccines will never provide full protection. There will not be a single, clear moment at which we will all agree that the pandemic is over. There will be no victory march.
If we are somehow to move on from this dreadful crisis, we must first successfully vaccinate our population, starting with the most vulnerable. However, to regain the freedoms we once took for granted, we must also accept some risk from COVID-19, just as we accept the risk posed by other pathogens and behaviours. Crucially, despite the importance of expertise in tackling the pandemic, it has its limits — a point that many (including experts) might find uncomfortable. No epidemiologist or public health expert can establish the “right” level of risk, as is evident from the often highly divergent expert opinions that have been emerged in Australia and elsewhere.
Moving forward requires political leadership and honest conversation with the public, acknowledging that “zero-COVID” is a dead-end and that the virus is here to stay. The new national pandemic roadmap is a step in the right direction, but it won’t work if leaders hide behind modelling and fail to persuade and accept responsibility for their decisions.
Shahar Hameiri is an Associate Professor in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland.