Australia’s glacial vaccine rollout could put the nation at risk of another Covid outbreak, which could keep us all contained far longer than mid-2022.
Jane Halton, the former head of the federal Department of Health, told the ABC’s Four Corners, “Have we moved fast enough? Well, I think all of us would like to be in a position where we can open our borders and be confident right now. And what’s not where we’re at.”
The program has been plagued with issues, from low supplies to unpredictable access and concerns over the rare but potentially deadly blood-clotting issues linked to AstraZeneca. So far, the Therapeutic Goods Administration reports 24 cases of thrombosis have developed among the 2.1 million people who have received the vaccine developed at Oxford.
Australia has had extremely low levels of infection since September 2020. The majority of new cases have been detected in hotel quarantine and dealt with effectively. There have been a total of 30,011 cases around the country and 910 deaths since the outbreak.
Experts say now isn’t the time to be complacent. It prompts an interesting question: Would a firm border opening date incentivise more Australians to roll up their sleeves?
Lessons from Taiwan
Alarm bells sounded in Taiwan last week following a surge in cases. Things went awry in the tiny island nation, which is now on its second-highest level of alert, after eight consecutive months with zero cases of community transmission. The population of 23.6 million people isn’t in lockdown, but masks are mandatory, gatherings are limited, borders are closed, and supermarket shelves are once again stripped bare as residents rush to gather essentials.
Like Australia, Taiwan has excellent public health infrastructure. It effectively prevented the virus from spreading in the community, but for a few cases arriving from overseas. Masks were worn and technology was used to enable contact tracing. So far, so good.
Also like Australia, however, Taiwan has been very slow on rolling out vaccines. Only 1 per cent of the population is believed to have been vaccinated before this new wave.
Professor Maximilian de Courten, a global health expert and Director of the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University in Melbourne, today wrote an article for SBS in which he said, “Short of attempting to eliminate the virus by strict isolation (not only of cases but of the whole population from abroad) and severe quarantine or lockdown measures, getting everyone vaccinated as soon as possible is the best approach to a lasting COVID-free world.”
Winter is coming
On top of that, winter is just around the corner, and that comes with risk.
Professor Terry Nolan, Head of the Vaccine and Immunisation Research Group at the Doherty Institute in Victoria, told Four Corners, “In Melbourne, we learned to our great cost, at the onset of winter, what happened last year with the escape from quarantine, all of a sudden, it’s completely out of control.” Certainly, no-one wants to live in a world in which an Australian city could see a single day peak in new cases of more than 700, but the rollout is still happening in slow motion.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said that opening the international border at some point in mid-2022 is a “conservative estimate”. At this point, about 3.6 million doses have been given and about 500,000 are being delivered every week. An estimated 40 million jabs would need to be done to fully protect our adult population, which could be achieved by October 2022.
Risk of falling behind
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson also weighed into the debate this morning on Nine’s Today show. He warned that Australia risks falling behind unless more vaccinations are delivered, especially as other nations around the world begin opening their doors again.
“It should be the number one priority of government,” he said. “Nothing else matters more.”
In the United Kingdom, for example, more than 22 million people have already been fully vaccinated. That’s almost equivalent to the entire population of Australia. The country has reintroduced international travel with a traffic-light system that rates countries by risk.
Australia is currently on the “green list” with a string of other countries that appear to have Covid under control. These include Brunei, the Falkland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Iceland, Israel, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, and a number of British territories.
It’s a long way from being reciprocated, however, with NZ our furthest horizon.
Question about dates
The federal government is promising to make 2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine available in October, which could improve public confidence. More doses of Novavax and Moderna are also on the way. The locally-made AstraZeneca vaccine will continue to be rolled out.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt delivered an update on the vaccine rollout last night, in which he was asked whether the lack of a firm date on re-opening the border was leading to vaccine complacency. Would a firm date act as a strong incentive for people to get the jab?
“The strongest reason to be vaccinated is to protect your life and to protect the lives of every other Australian. It’s one of those things where any one person’s vaccination not only protects them, but it helps protect every other Australian,” he said.
“But we’ve always said that this is an important part in our capacity to allow more Australians to travel and to allow more people to enter Australia.”