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Should Oz follow Kiwi example to beat Covid border chaos?

July 16, 2020 Headline News No Comments Email Email

As Australia’s travel industry struggles to cope with fast-changing coronavirus rules (Victoria imposes lockdowns and NSW refuses to do the same; Queensland encourages tourism from some places and bans it from others) – the question arises, why doesn’t Australia just bite the bullet, lock down hard and get rid of the coronavirus like the Kiwis did?

A brief letter to the editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald last week summed it up. Dave Watts, from Avalon in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, wrote: “We are all Melburnians now”, according to Scott Morrison. I’d rather we were all Kiwis. Jacinda Ardern’s elimination strategy worked. Morrison’s suppression policy has not.

Some top Australian public health officials are now coming out and saying the same thing. They argue that Australia should change its Covid-19 strategy to a more ambitious plan to eliminate the coronavirus rather than playing “the endless game of Groundhog Day” in fighting continual outbreaks that could go on for months or years.

Prominent public health experts who now believe Australia should adopt the New Zealand strategy include Bill Bowtell and Gregory Dore, from UNSW’s Kirby Institute for infection and immunity in society, and Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely.

New Zealand’s “Level Four” lockdown was among the strictest in the world. It involved closing all schools and non-essential businesses, including butchers and large retailers. No takeaway burgers and no popping into Kmart or visiting Bunnings. It was more rigorous than anything in Australia; it was uniform throughout New Zealand; it lasted a month – and it worked.

The last locally-acquired case of Covid-19 in New Zealand was on 22 May 2020. New Zealanders are now attending sporting matches, going to pubs, clubs and restaurants, staying in hotels and motels, meeting, gathering and living life rather as in the days before Covid-19 was ever heard of.

Obviously, the NZ economy has taken a hit – everywhere has. But Kiwis can forget about social distancing in shops, restaurants, public transport and public gatherings, including religious services, funerals, weddings, and community sports events. Event organisers still have to ensure contact tracing.

There can be no trans-Tasman “travel bubble” with New Zealand while Australia still has periodic outbreaks of Covid-19. No New Zealand government could sell such a bubble to the public. The Kiwis went through a lot; they have beaten the virus and they are determined to keep it out. There’s a general election coming up there in September.

‘The Mona Jacinda’. Tongue-in-cheek tribute to New Zealand’s Prime Minister displayed in the Mangaweka Gallery, Manawatū-Whanganui region, North Island, NZ. Photo: Peter Needham

At one stage, Australia seemed to be on the brink of eliminating Covid-19 by default – similar to New Zealand’s gain but without the same degree of pain. Some Australian states may have eliminated it: Tasmania has gone more than 50 days without a new case while other states have recorded little or no community transmission in recent weeks.

But then the disease suddenly erupted in Melbourne, the result of various bungles. Australia’s internal borders were already opening and closing in a bewildering manner.  Calls for NSW to close the border with Victoria were ignored. After a delay, the border was finally closed. It was too late. The coronavirus has now spread back to NSW and re-established. Spot community transmission is happening, people are queuing to get tested and virus detectives are hot on the trail.

Dr Bowtell, an adjunct professor at the University of NSW and one of the architects of Australia’s response to HIV, told the ABC Australia had been on the verge of eliminating Covid-19.

He suggested Australia should go the whole way and finish the job.

“I don’t think people want to go through six weeks of lockdown in the middle of a Melbourne winter and come out the other end wondering whether there’ll be another one if cases surge again,” he told Melbourne radio.

Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Blakely told the 7.30 Report that six out of eight states and territories in Australia had eliminated community transmission.

“We’re also seeing in Victoria at the moment the consequences of suppression gone wrong – that is a big outbreak happening,” Blakely said.

“That will keep happening in the future if the virus keeps circulating, which is incredibly disruptive for society and the economy.”

Aaron Bloch, an infectious diseases and general medicine doctor at a Melbourne metropolitan hospital, added: “From my own perspective – widely shared by my colleagues – suppression cannot win. Coexisting with COVID-19 means lives lost, repeated lockdown and gripping uncertainty, which will take a giant toll on our collective mental health and undermine the confidence necessary for economic recovery.”

In the face of all this, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian yesterday backed suppression rather than elimination, saying people must learn to co-exist with Covid-19 and live with the deadly threat it poses.

“We can’t shut down every time we have a cluster of cases,” Berejiklian told A Current Affair.

“We can’t keep shutting down and reopening, that is not a good way for us to manage the pandemic.”

The travel industry is struggling to cope with constant Covid-related changes and consequent cancellations. Queensland is desperate for tourists – but not from Victoria and not from infected “hotspots” in Sydney, which change almost daily. The NSW-Victoria border is still closed.

South Australia is deploying troops to seal its border with Victoria. The Northern Territory is free of the coronavirus, but it has declared all 30 Sydney local government areas to be coronavirus hotspots, meaning people who have been in Sydney within 14 days of their arrival in the Territory will be subject to the same restrictions imposed on Victorians.

No one is allowed into Western Australia if they have been in Victoria in the previous 14 days, unless they meet exemption requirements.

Eliminating the coronavirus in Australia would clear up the endless confusion and allow the country to establish “travel bubbles” with countries like New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam where the pandemic has effectively been squashed.

Not all experts are convinced Australia could succeed in an elimination strategy, but a number have been converted to the idea. For an overview, the following ABC article is worth reading: Experts call for Australia to replace coronavirus suppression strategy with elimination plan.

Written by Peter Needham

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