Path from lockdowns hinges on testing, tracing and quarantine measures

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Australia’s proposed path out of harsh restrictions depends on optimal quarantine systems, contact tracing and social distancing – and lockdowns will probably still be needed.

Modelling commissioned by the Doherty Institute for the federal government found the country could move to phase B of the national road map out of the pandemic once 70 per cent of the eligible population was fully immunised.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he remained confident the 70 per cent target could be reached by the end of the year.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It also shows opening up the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to all eligible adults rather than continuing to focus on vulnerable Australians will boost the level of community protection.

“At 70 per cent, we’re at a position where the light, low public health and social measures … [and] an effective and well-preserved public health response could help to turn what might otherwise be a bushfire into more of a controlled backburn, and keep case numbers low,” the Doherty Institute’s Professor Jodie McVernon told reporters on Tuesday.

But the Grattan Institute’s Dr Stephen Duckett said the modelling came with a large caveat.

“To what extent do we think our test, tracing and isolation is ‘gold standard’?” he said. “If you think it is not, when there is lots of virus circulating, according to [the Doherty Institute], somewhere between 18 and 39 per cent of the time we’d have to be in hard Victorian-style lockdowns.”

The Grattan Institute last week published its own modelling, saying the country could move to phase B of reopening only when 80 per cent of the total Australian population was immunised. Dr Duckett said at that level, the government would not have to worry about the effectiveness of testing, tracing or quarantine systems.

The Doherty modelling found Australia could move away from economically damaging, tough restrictions with 70 per cent of eligible adults vaccinated, but only if testing, tracing, isolating and quarantine measures remained at the optimal levels seen in NSW during the Christmas and new year outbreaks.

If cases grew and stressed the health system to a point where testing and tracing lagged, similar to Melbourne’s experience in August last year, strict level-four lockdowns would be needed about 22 per cent of the time, it said.

UNSW epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws said the Doherty modelling “really pulled its punches”, as the 70 per cent target would not leave enough Australians protected.

“That’s 56 per cent of the total population. That means one in two people are not protected,” she said.

Without going for an “aspirational herd immunity” target, Professor McLaws said the modelling left governments relying too heavily on the success of public health measures.

“It assumes there will be enough testing or warning to ask the community to start wearing masks, but once a variant of concern gets into the population they will have as much trouble as NSW is having,” she said.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said COVID-19 would circulate in the community once restrictions began to ease as more people were vaccinated.

“We do need to accept that there will be cases. We need to accept that there will be hospitalisations, there will be ICU admissions and there will be deaths,” he said.

“And so we need to revisit those plans of capacity in intensive care, in-hospital capacity, as well as continuing to have – and this is very clear from the modelling – the very best testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine elements of our public health response.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he remained confident the 70 per cent target could be reached by the end of the year.

Professor McVernon said it had been important to focus on the most vulnerable groups first in the nation’s vaccination strategy, but now, to reduce transmission, younger adults needed to start getting immunised.

The modelling is based on a hypothetical case of uniform national vaccination coverage, but regional data shows stark differences across the country.

Lieutenant-General John Frewen, head of Operation COVID Shield, said it was important to vaccinate the nation “as consistently and as evenly as we can”.

“We’ll be watching very carefully from here on in to see where some areas are moving ahead and where other areas are falling behind,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

Across the country, 12.6 million doses have been administered. To date, 41.4 per cent of the eligible population aged 16 and over has received one dose, while 19.7 per cent, or roughly 15 per cent of the total population, are fully vaccinated.

Opposition health spokesman Mark Butler said it was a disgrace that millions were in lockdown in Greater Sydney while the country had one of the lowest vaccination rates among developed nations.

“If Scott Morrison had done his job and secured enough vaccine supply … we wouldn’t be in the current position where only 15 per cent of the Australian population is vaccinated,” he said.

The next phase of Doherty Institute modelling for the federal government would look in detail at some of the groups or more localised areas that could be targeted with particular measures for vaccination, Professor McVernon said.

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