What Australia’s dark winter tells us

What Australia’s dark winter tells us

Australia was celebrated by nations everywhere as citizens lived free and the coronavirus stayed away. Everything changed in the winter.

If you want an indication of how quickly the Delta variant of Covid-19 changed the game for Australia, look no further than Victoria.

On August 3, Victorians were celebrating an achievement no jurisdiction anywhere in the world had come close to — beating back a surge in new cases linked to the highly infectious variant out of India.

It was the first day of zero new local cases since Delta first arrived on July 12. But it would not last.

The next day a teacher from Al-Taqwa College in Truganina — a school that has endured more than its fair share of the Covid burden — became infected.

Two days later Victoria was back in lockdown. This time there was no coming out.

The speed and ferocity with which the Delta strain moves around the community flipped Australia’s virus story on its head.

For months, Australians lived under relative freedom. They could shop, eat at restaurants and cafes, meet friends for beers at the pub, visit family members in their homes and travel more than a handful of kilometres.

They were the envy of much of the world because not only could they live freely but the country as a whole had avoided mass deaths.

Winter was particularly harsh to NSW and Victoria. Both states are in lockdown and neither Sydney or Melbourne will emerge until at least 70 per cent of those over 16 are double dosed with a Covid vaccine.

‘No alternative’ to long, harsh lockdown

Speaking to reporters on August 5, as Victorians experienced a sort of whiplash from zero cases to lockdown number six, Premier Daniel Andrews blamed the virus. He was partly right.

“I would prefer we didn’t have to make this decision,” he said.

“But my fear is if we wait a few days there is every chance that instead of being locked down for a week, this gets away from us and we are potentially locked down until we all get vaccinated.”

He told the community there was “no alternative”.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am to have to be here doing this again. But with so few in the community with one vaccination let alone two, I have no choice.”

The virus was to blame for its swift circulation around the community but it had a helping hand from two Sydney sources.

The first source was a removalist crew who breached conditions of their work permit, crossed into Victoria and carried the virus to an apartment complex where they worked without masks.

That was on July 8.

The second source was a family from Craigieburn who returned to Victoria from a red zone in NSW and left home to visit a Coles supermarket against their home isolation orders.

Today in Victoria there are 246 new locally acquired coronavirus cases and roughly half of those have been linked. Mystery cases are piling up and contact tracers are working overtime to keep a lid on an outbreak that some experts say will see daily cases up to 2000 within weeks.

That is the situation in NSW — a state that bucked the national trend towards lockdowns in favour of keeping the economy open.

Did NSW go too late?

When cases began climbing in Sydney, Premier Gladys Berejiklian leaned into familiar territory. She pushed back against the urge to lockdown, telling reporters that NSW was different and that it is possible to live with the virus.

She was wrong because unlike previous iterations of the deadly virus, there is no living with Delta.

We may never know how much it would have helped things if the Premier pulled the trigger earlier.

But a study from the University of Sydney suggested last year that delaying a lockdown by three days would extend it for three weeks.

On July 16 there were just two new local cases. Same for the next four days. By July 25 there were 29 new local cases recorded.

That led to four local council areas being locked down but the rest of the state remained open.

Having lived freely for months, all of Sydney was about to enter a lockdown they would not get out of.

On Monday there were 1281 new local cases and five new deaths reported. Shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs are closed, masks are mandatory and vaccination is the only way out of a lockdown that just two months ago was the furthest thing from people’s minds.

The ACT, which went a year without a single case, is in lockdown, too. Its lockdown was extended until at least September 17 as the total number of local cases associated with the Canberra outbreak nears 400.

How much blame goes to the Prime Minister?

Australians have taken up vaccinations at remarkable speed since cases started spreading throughout Victoria and NSW over winter.

Before that, Australia’s vaccine take-up was complicated by two issues — supply and complacency.

Dr Lesley Russell is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney.

She has been a senior health policy adviser to the US Surgeon-General during the Obama administration and adviser to the Australian Labor Party.

She says Australia has “really failed when it comes to vaccinations” and the Morrison government has “not shown the necessary flexibility or adaptability to change” when things went wrong.

“We went from managing the infections very well, and we still do that brilliantly, but that’s not enough to control a pandemic and we’ve really failed when it comes to vaccinations,” she told news.com.au.

“I basically attribute that to the fact that … the federal government has had to make decisions around vaccines starting back last year (and) they’ve made decisions that have either turned out to be wanting or to be wrong.”

Government wasn’t quick enough to pivot after setbacks

She said Scott Morrison was unable to change course when Australia relied too heavily on vaccinations from the University of Queensland which were abandoned after trial participants returned false-positive HIV test results.

“When that failed they didn’t then turn around and say, ‘That’s not going to work, we have to do something else.’”

When will life return to normal?

National cabinet had agreed to allow the gradual easing of restrictions when states reach vaccination targets of 80 per cent of the adult population receiving two doses.

But it could be sooner than that.

Last week, the Victorian Premier announced that when 70 per cent of the population has received one dose of the vaccine modest eased restrictions could be brought in.

This was initially due to happen on September 23 but with vaccination rates ramping up, the rules could be eased as soon as September 19.

When that goal is reached, there will be an easing of the travel restriction from 5km to 10km, outdoor exercise will be permitted three hours a day, outdoor gyms will reopen and childminding for school-age children will be allowed if both parents are critical workers.

The Premier also noted that the majority of regional Victoria was on track to exit lockdown this week, though he said some restrictions would still remain in place.

The NSW Premier made a bold commitment on Sunday to ending lockdowns, outlining what it would take to vanquish them from the state forever.

Currently, 75 per cent of the state has had one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and 53 per cent are fully vaccinated. Ms Berejikilian says the magic number is 80 per cent with two doses.

“We certainly will not have to have a statewide lockdown ever again when we hit the 80 per cent double dose vaccination rates which is what we’re looking forward to,” she said on Sunday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday that states which fully vaccinate 80 per cent of people aged 16 and older will be able to resume international travel.

But borders between states will likely stay closed much longer.

“I don’t understand why the Liberal Party keeps wanting to bring down the border with infected states like NSW, before we’re ready,” WA Premier Mark McGowan said.

“What that will mean is the virus is imported. People will die, there will be terrible economic dislocation.

“I don’t want us to end up like NSW. I don’t want us in that position. We’re going to fight like hell to stop that from occurring.”

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