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The end of Australia’s zero COVID strategy came slowly, then all at once

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When the decision to drop Australia’s zero COVID-19 strategy was made, it was swift and prefaced by very little political debate.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Australians that he and the state Premiers had agreed a “new deal” – a pathway from a pre-vaccination period focused on suppression of the virus “to one that sees us manage COVID-19 as an infectious disease like any other in our community”.

It was last July that national cabinet committed to its goal of “suppression of COVID-19 until a point in time a vaccine or effective treatments are available, with the goal of no local community transmission”. That meant elimination.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday the country’s plan to emerge from pandemic restrictions.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

This confirmed the country’s course of snap lockdowns and the Fortress Australia policy, which culminated in the threat to ban and fine Australians if they tried to return home from India.

Signalling the end of elimination is an important symbolic shift, the first step towards restoring freedoms such as the right to leave the country, freedoms that went unquestioned before the pandemic emerged in Wuhan, China.

But the new deal is still just a sketch, awaiting input from the Peter Doherty Institute on the ideal vaccination rate targets to fill in the details of when and how.

Morrison cautioned there was “still quite a journey ahead of us”. The main roadblock is the federal election some time in the next 12 months.

The combination of an elimination strategy and closed borders has enjoyed what is described in politics as a “super majority” of popular support and Morrison is keen to preserve the special cohort of voters who overwhelmingly endorsed the tough-love approach of Labor Premiers Mark McGowan and Annastacia Palaszczuk and are also prepared to vote for him.

Morrison will be the first Prime Minister to have served a full term and seek a second since John Howard in 1998.

But he will face the polls at a different time in the pandemic’s cycle, when the psychological costs of lockdowns and restrictions are festering while the vaccination rollout is tarnished by unresolved questions over safety and supply.

“We’re prisoners of our own success,” Morrison proclaimed.

Labor pollster says he’s hearing real fatigue in the community over constant lockdowns. Credit:Kate Geraghty

Even before the national cabinet dropped its zero-COVID goal, it was Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews who, upon return from an injury-induced political sabbatical, said lockdowns would not be necessary once everyone who wanted a vaccine had been given access to one.

“We wouldn’t be having lockdowns to protect people who weren’t prepared to protect themselves,” he said.

Former federal Labor leader Bill Shorten says he’s noticed a change in the community’s mood in his Melbourne electorate of Maribyrnong.

“People are just flat, there’s this frustrated resignation,” he says. “We’ve been in this endless loop, it’s like one of those Escher paintings with the stairs to nowhere, there’s got to be an end line, it can’t go on indefinitely. People need hope.”

Samaras says this yearning has been dominant in his groups for some time but most prevalent in the under-50s, warning of a generational divide where younger voters worry politicians are reneging on their side of the elimination bargain.

“They’ve been told all of 2020: hold tight, keep your borders shut and when the vaccines arrive, this is the light at the end of your tunnel,” he says.

Both Samaras and Shorten raised the clip of Dame Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford scientist who created the AstraZeneca vaccine being given a standing ovation by huge, non-socially distanced crowds at Wimbledon as a “penny dropping moment”.

“Everyone knows Britain’s had a terrible time with COVID but here we are watching Nick Kyrgios and Ash Barty playing at Wimbledon and going – there’s crowds, what? The penny’s dropped,” Shorten says.

‘We’ve been in this endless loop, it’s like one of those Escher paintings with the stairs to nowhere.’

Former prime minister Tony Abbott has long seen this day coming. He argues the country has been “far too quick to count the costs of staying free but far too slow to count the costs of locking down”.

“Something must have gone badly wrong for Australia to be continuing to shut down just as others are finally starting to open up,” Abbott says.

Abbott is one of few to have braved this topic publicly in the past and again this week.

“Yes we have to preserve life but not any and every cost, because facing risk and accepting challenge is part of any decent life,” he says.

Virgin Australia boss Jayne Hrdlicka knows all too well that Australia has been unwilling to have that debate out loud. In May she was castigated when she said the international border had to reopen eventually even if some people may die, although at far lower levels than from the flu.

In 2019, there were 169,301 deaths, an average of 3255 per week and 72 of those were people claimed by flu.

Morrison has said he will not countenance a death rate similar to the UK’s of around 100 per week. In Britain that ratio is 0.25 deaths per million; in Australia that would mean seven deaths per week.

Nationals backbencher and former cabinet minister Matthew Canavan says no figure should be established as acceptable. “I doubt we do that with the flu, we’re always trying to save lives,” he says.

“But I accept we can’t make perfect the enemy of the good so I can’t put a figure or number on it, except to say I doubt we’ll get to a situation where there are zero deaths from coronavirus – that’s unlikely.”

Health officials test a woman for COVID-19 at a drive-through clinic in Mindarie.Credit:Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

Simon Longstaff from the Ethics Centre, a Sydney-based independent think thank, believes that the community has been quietly contemplating the inevitability of COVID becoming a permanent background feature of life.

“The community is far smarter and more subtle in its thinking than most people give credit,” Longstaff says.

“The community knows that people will die every year from influenza and it’s not that they say ‘I’m indifferent to it’ but they say this is despite us putting in universal access to the flu jab, having the best respiratory doctors that we can, having good hospitals and all the rest.

“But they accept that because they know all those steps have been taken.”

“Until we get to that [high] level of vaccination, I think it’s reasonable to continue to say no, we can’t have tolerance of community transmission of cases,” ethicist Peter Singer agrees.

All roads out of Fortress Australia – and Scott Morrison’s political future – rely on how quickly jabs go into people’s arms. Notably, the road map outlined on Friday did not set a target for how many people need to be vaccinated before international borders are reopened.

“The best way forward would be to set a date by which time all who wish should have been vaccinated and declare that all restrictions will then cease,” Abbott says.

Vaccine deadlines have also been promoted by the ABC’s Norman Swan, who tweeted in May that: “We should set a fixed date for opening up internationally. That will focus everyone. Watch the queues for the vaccine.”

Police checkpoint on the closed border between Victoria and NSW, January 1, 2021. Credit:Jason Robins

The last time Morrison tried to suggest the community live with COVID he was met a wall of interstate border closures that polling suggests the community has emphatically backed.

Subsequently, he shifted to a position of saying there was “no hurry” to reopen borders and arguing at G7 that the domestic freedoms Australia had were “the envy of the world”.

That ended on Friday. Now Morrison’s challenge is to bring clarity to the pathway to reopening with exact targets and to provide the leadership a weary public needs while the rollout takes place.

It also remains to be seen how the Premiers – who have agreed to national plans in the past only to go off and do their own thing – morph from zero-COVID warriors to managing the virus in a vaccinated population.

“You cannot keep traumatising the voting public and not have someone come in and cash in that bill,” Samaras warns.

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