(Image: AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

The federal government is turning to purely political solutions to deal with COVID.

That’s hardly surprising. This is, after all, a government led by a failed marketer. But the situation has been exacerbated by the government’s recent poll slump (now trailing Labor by 2% and worsening) coupled with the success of Queensland and WA’s highly protectionist policy frameworks.

In March, as Australia’s “super-fast” vaccine rollout was starting, Scott Morrison claimed that it was the government’s “hope and expectation” that Australia was on track to open international borders by October when the adult population had been vaccinated. This position was apparently dumped by doorstop last week, as Health Minister Greg Hunt followed the Mark McGowan playbook.

“Vaccination alone is no guarantee that you can open up,” Hunt said. “If the whole country were vaccinated, you couldn’t just open the borders … We still have to look at a series of different factors: transmission, longevity [of vaccine protection] and the global impact — and those are factors which the world is learning about.”

Morrison then flipped the narrative once again. On Friday he claimed that vaccinated Australians could travel for certain purposes like business or funerals and be subject to home quarantine (rather than hotels).

He then flipped yet again yesterday claiming, “Australia is in no hurry to open those borders [and] I will not be putting at risk the way we are living in this country, which is so different to the rest of the world today”.

This inconsistent series of serious policy settings shows just how the federal government has utterly lost control of the narrative. As Kishor Napier-Raman wrote last week, our shut borders have tragic real-life consequences. There are tens of thousands of Australians stuck in purgatory overseas, many without employment, some even suicidal. Meanwhile, millions of Australian businesses in the tertiary and tourism sectors are potentially without billions of dollars of income while borders remain firmly shut.

Almost no one would currently support wholesale border opening before some a degree of vaccination occurs (especially amongst the “at risk”), but the federal and state governments have to make a call as to the level of vaccination required to re-engage us with the rest of the world.

Eradicating COVID-19 from Australia, let alone the world, is practically impossible. But that itself isn’t highly relevant. After all, we haven’t eradicated influenza which can kill around 1000 Australians annually. In fact, the world never really eradicates anything (smallpox aside).

Israel, the UK and the UAE are providing real-life benchmarks as to the efficacy of vaccination. Around 53% of Israel’s population have been fully vaccinated (and a further 830,000 have recovered from COVID), so their level of immunity is believed to be around 68%. Despite largely opening up internally (albeit not to tourists), cases in Israel continue to plummet (from 8500 per day to only 150 per day now). Deaths, which have dropped to five per day, now appear similar to Israel’s winter flu levels.

The UAE is perhaps an even better benchmark. The Emirates, with a population of almost 10 million, is still reporting around 2000 infections daily (maintaining some distancing rules, like limiting private gatherings to 10) but has vaccinated almost half the population. Its reported daily COVID-related deaths are around three per day.

The UK has provided 32 million first vaccinations and 9 million second doses (focusing on people aged 50 plus). Despite the widespread acclaim at the speed of the rollout, the UK has only fully vaccinated around 13% of the population. But showing how discerning a killer COVID is, deaths have plummeted from 1200 to 26 per day (which would average to 9490 a year). Flu deaths in England vary widely from year to year, but have gone as high as 28,330 in recent years.

Every year, around 160,000 Australians die of something. The median age of a COVID fatality is 83. If the UK is any guide, once Australians aged over 60 have been fully vaccinated, the risk of death likely drops below influenza levels (around 1000 per year) — a risk we have had no issue accepting.

Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt (along with the state premiers) need to clearly and publicly state how many annual deaths Australia will accept from COVID-19 and therefore, what specific proportion of the population needs to be fully vaccinated before we can start allowing citizens, students and tourists to return. Morrison’s prediction last week of 1000 weekly cases might even be acceptable to most, if that means 500-1000 annual COVID deaths (which is the UAE’s current case fatality rate).

The Australian population wants, and the business sector needs, basic transparency honesty from our elected officials. Sadly, this is an unusual concept for most of them.

At what point should Australia consider opening its borders? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey‘s Your Say section

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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