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Suppression remains vital in COVID-19 exit strategy

As COVID-19 case numbers in NSW and Victoria rise dramatically, the federal government and its Coalition counterparts in NSW are seeking to change the narrative. Under their preferred storyline, the focus should be less on daily case numbers, which have increased with alarming speed in the past week, than on a new “normality”, a way of living with COVID-19 that accepts it is ever present in the community.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says case numbers “are not the whole story”, but concedes “we need to suppress the virus as best we can” while getting vaccination rates up. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian says she accepts that “getting to zero across the nation … will be an impossible task”, and NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard suggests “normality” may be just “weeks away” (read October or November) if the good citizens of NSW keep up their excellent work in getting vaccinated.

Their pitch is for us all to look to the horizon to see the hope of a more normal society and economy. It’s an understandable sentiment: the federal government must call an election before May next year, and after a sluggish vaccine rollout, many backbenchers are rightly worried about their prospects. We all need a sense that we can eventually return to something resembling normal.

An anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne on Saturday.

An anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne on Saturday.Credit:Justin McManus

Lockdowns, such as those now in place in Victoria and NSW are immensely frustrating and are clearly testing community patience. This was evident in Melbourne on Saturday when thousands of people, some with malign intent, surged through the city in clear defiance of health orders.

There is a risk that civil obedience and trust in the authorities will crumble if hard lockdowns look like continuing indefinitely. And there is no doubt that with each tightening of restrictions there are consequences for people’s mental health, for their ability to earn an income and, ultimately, for the economy.

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To deal with this problem, the federal government is pinning much of its messaging on the Doherty Institute modelling, which sketches a staged shift out of harsh restrictions. A pathway, even theoretical, might give people the hope they crave and the encouragement to get vaccinated. The modelling suggests the nation could transition to lighter pandemic restrictions, with only intermittent use of hard lockdowns, once 70 per cent of the population above 16 years old is vaccinated.

But the analysis is highly conditional. The shift to easier restrictions – the “normality” Mr Hazzard talks about – is predicated on an optimal level of testing, contact tracing, isolation adherence and quarantine. It is based on a daily caseload in the tens of cases, or the hundreds. If cases are “in the thousands or beyond”, then the efficacy of testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine diminishes, and prolonged lockdowns would still be likely, it says.

Mr Morrison says he has seen further advice about that modelling, which he suggests confirms the 70 per cent vaccination target still works even if we hit it carrying much higher case numbers. He has not shown that advice to the world. While all states are enforcing hard lockdowns where necessary, the state premiers appear divided on the politics.Daniel Andrews in Labor-held Victoria focuses his rhetoric aggressively on suppression and Ms Berejiklian on driving vaccine uptake.

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