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Australia can’t dump zero Covid strategy until 80% of people vaccinated, Grattan Institute warns

Australia can’t afford to abandon its zero Covid strategy until 80% of the population is vaccinated, the Grattan Institute has warned, predicting that could take until March if children are not included in the rollout.

The release of the thinktank’s report on Thursday outlining how Australia could safely reopen with Covid circulating in the community comes as a leading epidemiologist warned the country’s political culture is so “toxic” that experts are being shut out of the planning process with the federal government.

The authors, which include health economists and policy experts, recommended continuing Australia’s strategy of getting to zero Covid cases in the community until four out of five people are vaccinated. This must include more than 95% of vulnerable populations, including people aged over 70, the authors wrote, but vaccines must be made more accessible by the state, territory, and federal governments.

The report says this is is an achievable target if vaccine supply problems are resolved by October. If a vaccine is approved for children aged between two-to-11, the 80% target could be achieved by the end of the year, the authors wrote.

While overall Australia had escaped the worst of the pandemic, the authors acknowledged the heavy price paid to maintain low case numbers.

“We are shut off from the rest of the world, and we have frequently been locked down to contain outbreaks,” the Grattan report says.

“The more infectious Delta variant is making zero Covid even harder to maintain. Australians have supported a hard-line approach, but they are also tired and frustrated. National cabinet must now tread a fine line. On the one hand, we cannot abandon our zero Covid strategy too early and risk the calamity we have so far avoided.

“But on the other hand, we cannot remain walled inside Fortress Australia indefinitely, cut off from the rest of the world and periodically cut off from one another.”

Prof Tony Blakely, a leading epidemiologist and public health medicine specialist based in Victoria, lamented that senior epidemiologists and statistical modellers appeared not to have been invited to share their expertise on reopening with the federal government.

Blakely said: “Are a range of expert modellers involved with the federal government in discussions about reopening? The answer is no, and I know that from several other modelling groups in Australia I have spoken to. And I find it incredibly frustrating.”

Blakely recently ran a session for senior policymakers in New Zealand about the way forward, but he says such a discussion is not possible in Australia.

“Trying to achieve that openness and dialogue in Australia is hopeless, because the political environment here is so toxic.

“To some extent we’re the victims of the way that we’ve allowed politics to unfold in Australia, with this incredibly hostile relationship between the states and the federal government, between the left and the right.”

Blakely and his team at the University of Melbourne were among those providing the Victorian government with advice and modelling during the state’s second wave in 2020. They regularly spoke to media about what the modelling found.

The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity is conducting modelling for the federal government, which will inform planning for and responding to outbreaks and reopening.

Guardian Australia asked the institute if it could provide details about what it is specifically modelling for the government, and when this might be made public, but was told by a media officer no information could be given “at this stage”.

Blakely said: “They can’t say a damn thing publicly about what they are giving the government, which I find on the one hand incredibly frustrating because this information should be publicly available, but I also reluctantly accept that’s the only way to do it now in this toxic political culture where everyone and every idea is attacked.

“While they may have a select few people they’re allowed to talk to for advice, they can’t really function in a way that I think most academics and independent advisors would like to, which is more open.

“But other people need to be involved, because they might provide a different and valuable perspective, and very high quality thinking.”

The Grattan Institute report said that while vaccines were a way out, there was no number of Australians that could get vaccinated that would see the virus eradicated permanently.

“But we can vaccinate enough Australians to ‘tame’ Covid,” the report says.

“Abandoning our zero Covid strategy before 80% of Australians are vaccinated would risk a rapid surge in Covid cases that overwhelms our hospitals and imposes a high death toll. 80% is an ambitious target.

“But Australia will have enough vaccine to reach it very quickly as more supply arrives in coming months. We can reach 80% vaccine coverage by the end of the year if a vaccine is approved for children under 12. Otherwise, we should aim to reach 80% by the end of March 2022, by vaccinating a higher share of adults.”

However, it would also require the state, territory and federal governments to better communicate the benefits of vaccination, and make vaccination as easy as possible, including by using workplaces, schools, and pop-up clinics, the authors said.

“Failure is not an option,” the report said.

“Australians shouldn’t and won’t accept high death tolls or indefinite restrictions. Achieving very high vaccination coverage is the only way to avoid these outcomes.”