Prime Minister Scott Morrison is urging Australians to abandon COVID-19 precautions when vaccination rates hit thresholds later this year, even as academic modeling released Tuesday shows such a strategy could expose the nation to a wave of illness and death that it’s so far avoided.
Australia’s delta-fueled surge is showing little sign of slowing after 753 cases were reported by New South Wales state on Tuesday, slightly down from its record of 830 infections Sunday.
The virus is continuing to spread to other parts of Australia despite lockdown restrictions enforced on more than half the nation’s 26 million people. New Zealand is also enforcing stay-at-home orders after the outbreak that started in Sydney reached there.
Morrison, who’s handling of the tardy vaccine rollout has been criticized by some health experts, said in a television interview Tuesday that the jump in cases was not a reason to delay reopening.
“We need to get out of there and live with it — we can’t stay in the cave,” Morrison said. “Any state and territory that thinks that somehow they can protect themselves from COVID with the delta strain forever, that’s just absurd.”
Citing research from Australia’s Doherty Institute, Morrison says all states and territories should end lockdowns when 70% of people 16 and older are fully vaccinated, and start removing some international travel restrictions at the 80% threshold. That strategy has the support of New South Wales Premier and fellow conservative Gladys Berejiklian, who said the delta variant has put a permanent end to the nation’s so-called COVID-zero strategy.
The leaders of states such as Western Australia and Queensland — led by Morrison’s political rivals from the Labor Party — say the Doherty research doesn’t factor in a surge in delta-led infections that’s emerged in southeastern Australia since mid-June, when a Sydney-based limousine driver contracted the virus from an infected flight crew.
Currently free of infections within their communities, those leaders say they are prepared to stay isolated and introduce new stay-at-home orders if needed to keep the pandemic out, even if vaccination rates hit Morrison’s thresholds.
Morrison’s conservative government trails the main Labor opposition in polls ahead of elections due to be held by May.
According to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, only about 24% of all Australians have had both shots. This is just below the global average of 25%, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Still, the nation’s inoculation rate is ramping up after a slow start that was hampered by a lack of supply, and Morrison says every adult will be able to get inoculated this year.
Sydney has now been in lockdown for two months and its 6 million residents are wearying of it, even as authorities this week implement tougher stay-at-home restrictions in some areas that included nightly curfews. Meanwhile, Melbourne is in its sixth lockdown and on Tuesday recorded 51 new cases. National capital Canberra has also implemented stay-at-home orders after the outbreak spread there.
According to the latest Australian government data, of the 11,662 people currently infected with COVID-19, 641 are hospitalized. The nation has so far recorded fewer than 1,000 deaths from the virus.
On Tuesday, researchers from three universities published a report they said showed that Morrison’s reopening plan would “put too many lives at risk and could hamper thousands more Australians with ongoing illness.” They said at least 90% of all Australians, including children, must be vaccinated before public health measures are fully relaxed and international borders reopened.
“Our modeling shows if 70% of Australians over 16 years of age are fully vaccinated, with a 95% vaccination level for those aged 60 years and over, there could eventually be some 6.9 million symptomatic COVID-19 cases, 154,000 hospitalizations, and 29,000 fatalities,” they said in a statement.
Before abandoning restrictions, “Australia would need at least 80% of the whole population vaccinated, and may still need some restrictions such as masks,” Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales, said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
She said the U.S., the U.K. and Israel lifted restrictions from May with vaccination rates at about 60%. “All three countries saw a resurgence of delta, with severe school outbreaks, pediatric ICUs overflowing, many kids hospitalized,” she said. “We should take these lessons on board.”
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