For the last year, Australians back home looked at the UK like a post-apocalyptic COVID wasteland. By contrast, Australia was bliss. Early border closures, harsh lockdowns and meticulous contact tracing pushed cases to zero. But the tables have turned. The UK is moving on while Australia seems to be suddenly trapped in a COVID nightmare.
The zero COVID strategy is no longer achievable. NSW’s world-leading contact tracers have met their match with the fast-spreading Delta variant. Cases continue to increase even within a lockdown. This wave may never disappear.
But even if it were still possible, the goal of elimination is no longer desirable now that we have vaccines. To keep cases down requires severe social restrictions, regular and indefinite lockdowns, and closed domestic and international borders. This is economically devastating. Businesses are shutting, jobs are being lost and the country is on the cusp of another recession.
Restrictions also take away what makes life worth living: family and friends, pubs and eating out, parties and weddings, the footy, travelling the world, and so much more.
The UK shows a different approach is possible. The Brits prioritised vaccines. Seven-in-10 adults are now fully inoculated, about half of those getting AstraZeneca. The UK then pursued a cautious, staged reopening. This was finalised in July with the removal of all restrictions on indoor gatherings. It’s early days but signs are promising with COVID cases in decline since July 16.
Britain has not eliminated COVID. There are still thousands of cases every day. Vaccines reduce but do not entirely stop the virus from spreading. Consequently, COVID-19 is becoming endemic and herd immunity is unlikely. Infectious disease epidemiologist at the University College London Professor Balloux Francois has written that “the vast majority of the global population is expected to get infected by the virus, likely more than once over their lifetime”.
Nevertheless, the vaccination program means cases are resulting in very few hospitalisations and an even smaller number of deaths. Vaccines make COVID less threatening. This is supported by improved treatment and emerging drugs. In the United States, 97 per cent of hospitalisations and 99 per cent of deaths from COVID-19 are among the unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Professor Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist whose model frightened the UK into lockdown last March, has declared that “the bulk of the pandemic” in the UK will be over by late September or October: an unimaginable timeline for Aussies right now.
This will require an entirely new mindset. This starts with surrendering the addiction to zero cases and obsession about every single hospitalisation and death. Lockdowns must be abandoned once every Australian has had the opportunity to be vaccinated. We cannot shut down society to protect people who are unwilling to protect themselves.
This is not an easy message. It will require political leadership that has been lacking in recent months. The Prime Minister and premiers will have to have an adult conversation about risk and responsibility.
They will have to explain that every death is a tragedy but not every death is avoidable. Australia had 169,301 deaths in 2019. Living is risky. We all eventually die. In the meantime, we get on with life.
We do not lock ourselves into homes because of the 1195 road crash fatalities nor only allow people to eat grey slush to avoid the 4967 diabetes deaths in 2019. For that matter, we did not lock down society in 2019 to prevent the 4124 deaths from influenza and pneumonia. In Baz Luhrmann’s immortal words: A life lived in fear is a life half lived.
(Matthew Lesh is the Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute (London) and an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.)