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Australia Will this really be Australia's last lockdown? Only if we reach the 'magic number'

23:06  18 july  2021
23:06  18 july  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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The Powerhouse Youth Theatre was just days away from launching its first major national tour, with shows planned for 23 venues across Australia, when Sydney's first coronavirus lockdown hit.

The cancellation was a huge blow to the small theatre's financial and artistic future, but was also "soul destroying for the young artists that were involved", executive director Katy Green Loughrey said.

Now, more than a year later, the theatre — located in Fairfield, the centre of Sydney's fastest growing COVID-19 cluster — is "staring down the barrel" of another round of cancellations.

The theatre's major premiere, originally scheduled for 2020, was optimistically postponed to later this year.

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"We've still got a few months up our sleeve so anything can happen," Green Loughrey said. "We have particular strategies in play, it's tightly managed … but we can't keep surviving lockdowns."

She said the organisation's biggest concern was providing support to their young artists, mostly from Sydney's south-west.

"We're moving things around," Green Loughrey said, "but you just can't keep moving things around forever because it will have an impact on long term sustainability and your potential for impact with the community."

It's been almost a year and a half since Australians were plunged into their first lockdown — in March 2020 — and there are concerns patience is running thin.

While people overseas post holiday snaps and flock to reopened bars, around 12 million Australians are watching it unfold from their living rooms; unable to visit friends or family, go out for dinner or travel further than 10 kilometres from their home.

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When Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed the government's four-step plan out of the pandemic on July 2, he said lockdowns would only be a "last resort" in the current phase.

Around the same time, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also declared she wants "this to be the last lockdown until we get the majority of our citizens vaccinated".

But fewer than three weeks later, while Queensland and and the Northern Territory have opened up again, NSW's lockdown has gone from extension to extension and now Victoria has joined it with even tougher measures — this past month has seen the most Australians in lockdown since this time last year.

"Last time, it felt like everyone was making sourdough and going for walks, there was this 'in this together' atmosphere," Elizabeth Bay resident David Baskind said, "this one feels darker to me".

The 40-year-old, who lives alone, said this was partly due to disappointment over being "back where we started", but also frustration towards the lack of clarity around the government's plan out of the pandemic.

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"We keep escalating the goal from the initial 'flatten the curve' catchphrase, because we needed time to prepare for the wave," he said. "But we didn't get the wave, and now we're going to continue the level of response, but the goal is a different goal."

Will this be Australia's last lockdown?

Three of Australia's leading epidemiologists agree the current Sydney lockdown is necessary, and without widespread vaccination the only way to stop a serious outbreak in its tracks.

What none of them can say with certainty, however, is whether this lockdown will be Australia's last.

Peter Collignon, a professor of infectious diseases at the Australian National University, warned the country is entering a "high danger time" for COVID-19.

Australia is also in a different situation to countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, who have built up a degree of natural immunity from the hundreds of thousands of people who have contracted it and recovered.

"[COVID-19] is harder to control in winter," he said, but added that Australia should be in a similar position to the northern hemisphere in four to six months.

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"If that's the price we have to pay to have reasonable free movement in Australia and not 20,000, 30,000, 50,000 deaths, I think that should be a price we're willing to pay."

All the epidemiologists ABC News spoke to for this story echoed this sentiment; without widespread vaccination, lockdowns were the only way to curb a serious outbreak.

Professor Marylouise McLaws, an epidemiologist from University of NSW, described lockdowns as an "important weapon in the arsenal in preventing people dying". "We can't ignore the fact that outbreaks work, but they don't work when authorities take too long," she said.

But University of NSW economist Gigi Foster believes Australia should have given up the harsh suppression approach long ago.

"We should not have continued on the path that we have now been following for a year of trying to eradicate the virus until we get to a point where supposedly we can all be vaccinated against it," she said. "These lockdowns are phenomenally expensive in human terms."

Instead, Professor Foster said the government should transition to a "pragmatic and practical" strategy, which would use vaccines, other pharmaceutical treatments, and specific protections for vulnerable groups to reduce the impact of the virus without heavily restricting the wider population.

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Other interventions, such as mandatory mask wearing and physical distancing could also go some way to reducing the likelihood of an outbreak serious enough to prompt a lockdown, but only if people play by the rules.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute, says in a situation with out of control spread and an unvaccinated population sometimes "lockdown is the only thing that will work ... which is the situation we are in right now".

The magic number?

If the end of lockdowns depends on widespread vaccination, the key question is when that will be achieved.

Estimates on when Australia will reach herd immunity vary, but most experts agree it will be when around 70 to 80 per cent of the adult population is fully vaccinated.

Professor MacIntyre said this figure was calculated at about 66 per cent for last year's strain, but Delta had pushed the threshold higher.

This could be achieved by October or November this year, Professor Collignon believes, if the rollout continues at the rate of about one million jabs a week — or more, when doses become available.

"The key to this is vaccines, vaccines, and vaccines," he said. "It decreases spread, plus more importantly, it decreases the consequence of any spread."

Professor MacIntyre, however, is more cautious about the timeline: "We might get an adequate supply of vaccination by September or October, but we might not."

"We've seen [the roll-out] progress at a glacially slow pace this year," she said, "we really need to lift our game."

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About one in three Australians over the age of 16 — or about 35 per cent — have so far received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the latest government figures.

Of these, about 13 per cent have received the two doses needed to be fully vaccinated.

While vaccine supplies are incoming, Professor MacIntyre said focus should be on establishing the infrastructure that would allow governments to quickly ramp up jabs.

"And the communications need to be out there, not just to white Australians … it should be reaching all multicultural groups," she said.

"We know that vaccination rates, for adult vaccination particularly, can be lower in certain cultural and ethnic groups, and we need to be really working hard to get those communications out there in a culturally appropriate way."

The government is yet to declare a vaccination threshold while it awaits the results of a modelling process.

"This will be a scientific number. It won't be a political number, it won't be an arbitrary number," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said earlier this month.

But even when the majority of the adult population is vaccinated, that doesn't mean everything will suddenly return to normal.

"This is not just turning a switch on and off," Professor Collignon added, "this is a gradual reduction in the restrictions we have on people."

The final stretch

In the pursuit of returning to pre-pandemic life, Professor Collignon said the first restrictions to go should be lockdowns.

Other measures, like the "four-square-metre" rule and limits on indoor crowds, should remain initially, while the soldier-on mentality of going into work while sick should be scrapped for good.

For guidance, he said, the government should look to the northern hemisphere and how the winter months affect virus spread in a largely vaccinated population.

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"We can see what are the effects not only on spread, because there will still be spread, but most importantly what is the effect on deaths and serious illness," he said.

"This is going to become, in my view, like influenza and the common cold virus. We will get some people who get really seriously ill with it, and the majority of people will have mild illness."

Revealing the government's path out of lockdowns, Morrison put forward a similar approach.

In the third step — labelled the consolidation phase, and set to occur after widespread vaccination — he said COVID-19 would be managed in the same way as other infectious diseases, with hospitalisation rates in line with the flu.

"So, when it is like the flu, we should treat it like the flu, and that means no lockdowns," he said.

Professor McLaws suggested once herd immunity is reached a national alert system should be devised to inform the public immediately when an outbreak has been detected and face masks should once again be worn.

"So that if there is some circulating virus, that's like Delta and easy to inhale, we don't have a lot of cases," she said. In this stage, she would also like to see at-home quarantine for vaccinated returning international travellers, with geo-location used to ensure compliance.

She's adamant, however, that returning to a new normal shouldn't mean "living" with the virus.

"People don't live with this, they die with it, they get long-COVID, they suffer," Professor McLaws said. "Do we live diphtheria? Do we live with whooping cough? Do we live with TB? No. You don't let people live with a deadly disease."

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Not all anti-lockdown protesters are conspiracy-theorists and extremists .
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