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While the government pivots to upbeat messaging and the AMA calls for greater honesty around reopening, the Doherty Institute modelling shows that lockdowns may continue, even at high vaccination rates. By Karen Middleton.

What is behind Morrison’s positive shift?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a Canberra press conference last week.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Announcing that Australia had borrowed half a million doses of Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from Singapore this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison described them as “500,000 doses of hope”.

His Health minister, Greg Hunt, says the same, adding: “And 500,000 doses of protection for Australians.”

Scott Morrison switched his language around Covid-19 two weeks ago, from stern to upbeat, from pleading to reassuring, from invoking fear to promoting hope.

In describing the national plan as a “deal with Australians”, he was seeking to make a pact with the millions trapped in lockdown: stick with it, get vaccinated and I promise you’ll get freedom in return.

But there are caveats in the medical modelling on which the promise is based that are not being reflected in the public messaging.

The Doherty Institute modelling offers a range of scenarios around the levels of vaccination needed to move away from lockdowns. The government has chosen to assume the best-case scenario for its reopening timetable.

This does not factor in what the Doherty Institute warns can go wrong, including slippage in the system known as TTIQ – “trace, test, isolate, quarantine”. These affect the outcome and mean lockdowns may still be necessary to avoid the virus overwhelming the health system, even at high vaccination rates.

And this is causing some concern.

“I’m not sure the best-case scenario is realistic,” says Australian Medical Association national president Omar Khorshid.

“The reality is we’re going to be more like at the other end of the modelling. You’re going to need to have fairly heavy restrictions in place and possibly even lockdowns. What we’re asking them to do is be honest with the public.”

Morrison made his “deal” pledge on August 20, as police prepared for mass anti-lockdown protests scheduled the next day.

The people who subsequently took to the streets of Sydney and Melbourne were not just anti-vaxxers and Covid-deniers; they included many who might not normally be inclined to civil disobedience. Many wore masks – acknowledging the risk they were taking while also increasing it. They were there because they were fed up.

The extreme fatigue with lockdowns, especially in Australia’s two largest cities, is coming through in public polling and private research as the most significant challenge facing the prime minister, both in managing the virus safely and in winning the next election.

These twin quests are driving the change in messaging coming from the top.

The government is conscious that the coming few weeks are crucial to getting vaccination rates high enough to relax some conditions before people’s patience runs out.

It also believes the coming six-week parliamentary recess is electorally crucial for talking to Australians. After that, it reasons people will switch off even more from politics and start to think about Christmas.

Morrison is seeking to persuade people that being vaccinated is what will make the most positive difference to their lives, enabling them to escape the frustration of lockdown.

There is a risk this frustration could lead to mass non-compliance before vaccination rates are high enough to protect the community. The result of that could be catastrophic – for Australia and, ultimately, for the prime minister.

Increasingly, lockdowns and border closures are dividing the country. Research being conducted by political parties and the private sector confirms the obvious: that those in the Covid-free states with tough border restrictions – Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania – favour border closures and generally support lockdowns to keep the virus at bay.

They are reaping the benefits of the other states’ restrictions without enduring the hardship of long periods cooped up themselves. But in New South Wales and Victoria in particular, people are over it. In his messaging, Scott Morrison is trying to speak to both.

“People are tired and angry,” says one MP whose electorate spans hotspot areas. “I think the challenge that he’s finding is how does he provide a message of hope that works in two completely different Australias?”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese is seeking to have another conversation altogether, repeating that people would not be in this predicament if Morrison had done his “two jobs” – vaccination and quarantine.

The NSW Covid-19 outbreak has affected public sentiment dramatically. Six months ago, as Australia enjoyed a golden summer of freedom while the northern hemisphere recorded horrifying pre-vaccination statistics, the federal government’s political standing was strong. Since then, it has plummeted, particularly in the past two months, as lockdown fatigue has become overwhelming for many.

People are telling focus-group researchers they are “just absolutely fatigued” and “want to get back to a normal life”.

The sentiment is summed up as: “It was worth it for a while, but now it looks as though it will go on forever.”

From Morrison, they want decisiveness. People want not just a plan, but a firm goal and a sense of purpose. Talk of both 70 and 80 per cent thresholds is confusing them. Likewise, while there is strong support for vaccination, many are still confused about how much it lessens transmission, getting sick and dying.

Generally, the research reveals people – and especially women – want the government to show empathy and understanding.

In recent days, Morrison has retaken the lead on Covid-19 messaging. The military commander he selected to run what he named Operation Covid Shield, Lieutenant-General John Frewen, has not attended Morrison’s recent news conferences.

“There’s still a lot of underlying fear there,” one observer tells The Saturday Paper, describing public sentiment. “There’s massive uncertainty.”

The national plan is four columns of dot points. It says moving from the current phase A to the transition phase B will occur when Australia has 70 per cent of over-16s double vaccinated.

It says phase B will bring some relaxation of rules, including reduced quarantine requirements for vaccinated people. But caps on the number of incoming travellers will still be required.

High vaccination rates will need to be maintained, involving “incentives and other measures”.

On the possibility of other restored freedoms, it says: “Ease restrictions on vaccinated residents (TBD).” TBD means “to be determined”. The plan says lockdowns are “less likely, but possible”.

Deakin University’s chair in epidemiology, Professor Catherine Bennett, says caution is required in foreshadowing eased restrictions.

“There’s a lot of language around opening up at 70 per cent, which is not what our plan says,” Bennett tells The Saturday Paper, emphasising that at least 80 per cent is the aim before substantial changes are made. “There’ll be things some people associate with ‘opening up’ that we may not quite be able to do.”

She says there will need to be a “soft opening”, a gradual build-up as vaccination rates increase and lockdowns become less necessary to keep hospitalisations low.

“It’s like learning to swim, needing fewer flotation devices as you improve,” Bennett says. It will still require measures to control the virus’s spread. There should be no suggestion of “letting it rip”.

“The big thing that vaccination and controlling the virus in the community brings is certainty,” she says. “… So that now we’re not worrying about single drops of water, we’re swimming.”

Omar Khorshid notes the Doherty Institute modelling foreshadows case numbers increasing into the tens of thousands once reopening occurs, but that the key will be who among the unvaccinated remain most at risk and what that will mean for hospitalisations. He fears the impact on the wider health system – on the treatment of other medical conditions – has not been adequately factored in.

“We’ve got to be serious about this,” Khorshid says. “It’s coming. It’s not on the horizon, in the distant future; this is on the doorstep in every state and territory.”

He says the AMA is comfortable with the idea of setting a target and opening up, but it has to be the right target.

This week, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also shifted his message, abandoning any pretence of continuing to pursue a strategy of elimination.

“We will not see these case numbers go down,” Andrews says. “They are going to go up. The question is by how many and how fast.”

But in WA and Queensland, keeping the virus out is still the theme – one Khorshid and others say is unrealistic.

“Any idea that this is some kind of Covid zero is fiction,” Khorshid says. “I think the premiers that are playing to that are not being honest. They’re playing politics with it.”

In what sounded like a pre-election pep talk about the path to electoral victory, Morrison told colleagues in the Coalition joint party-room meeting on Tuesday that he had conducted a round of media interviews in non-Covid-affected states.

“They’ve got sensible concerns and they want them addressed,” he says, adding that people in those states wanted an “adult conversation”.

But that wasn’t what government ministers say about Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, after she condemned suggestions her state should open up once most of the country reached 70 or 80 per cent vaccination levels.

“You let the virus in here and every child under 12 is vulnerable,” Palaszczuk told the Queensland parliament on Wednesday, in comments federal Labor did not endorse.

The Doherty Institute modelling says children remain at low risk of severe illness and death and that requiring them to be included before the national goal is reached would have only a tiny impact on transmission but cause potentially damaging delays.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt rebuked Palaszczuk, saying, “selectively misusing the Doherty modelling breaches good faith and damages public confidence”.

Given its focus on the best-case scenario, his government may face the same criticism.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "The two Australias".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.