Patience with Australia’s lockdowns is wearing thin, but epidemiologists are urging residents to play by the rules so we can lift restrictions sooner rather than later.
“The University of Sydney found last week only 40 per cent of people were staying home,” Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole told The New Daily.
“They found it has to be 80 per cent compliance to get cases down to fewer than 10 a day.”
If Sydney doubled its rate of compliance to the 80 per cent threshold outlined in the university modelling, the city would still take until mid-August to drive daily new cases below 10.
But if it only rose to 70 per cent, it would take until mid-September to hit that target.
Separate modelling from the University of Melbourne released on Tuesday supports that timeline.
It found the Sydney lockdown would have to run until at least September to drive down the 14-day average in daily new cases to five – the threshold researchers say would provide certainty that community transmission had been eliminated.
Speaking after New South Wales reported another 79 new cases and Victoria’s lockdown was extended by another seven days, Professor Toole said NSW had yet to see the flow-on effects of the state government’s tightening of restrictions.
“We’d expect these stricter restrictions to start having an impact maybe at the end of this week,” Professor Toole said.
If they fail to have the desired effect, the NSW government could restrict households from travelling more than five kilometres from their house, require people to wear masks at all times outside the home, and impose a curfew, he added.
“Then there’s really nothing else.”
Vaccines not a quick fix
The pleas for greater compliance with stay-at-home orders comes as doctors temper expectations that high vaccination rates will mean a complete end to lockdowns.
The federal government has ordered millions of doses of Pfizer and Moderna (which is yet to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration), but the bulk of the vials are not expected until the end of the year.
And estimates on when Australia will hit the required proportion of vaccinated adults to move beyond lockdowns vary.
Professor Toole said it would likely be about 80 per cent.
“Just going by what’s happening overseas,” he said.
But Professor Toole warned that even with widespread vaccination, Australia would likely still experience outbreaks.
The exact level of coverage required to open up without experiencing major outbreaks is unknown, and no country has reached that level yet.
Professor Toole pointed to the UK, which has more than 68 per cent of its population fully vaccinated and reported 40,000 cases on Monday.
“I look at the countries with high vaccination rates, they’re all experiencing outbreaks. Israel is up to 100 a day, [and] the UK is totally out of control,” he said.
“Countries like Malta, which has 71 per cent of coverage, are recording 200 cases a day.”
Vice president of the Australian Medical Association Dr Chris Moy said Australia’s healthcare system was not ready to open up if there was a risk of outbreaks similar to those seen in the UK and Israel.
“There’s discussion of us opening up for good. But a lot of people are going to end up in the hospital and die,” Dr Moy said.
“Especially while we’re already dealing with flu, other health issues, and wards having to close down because of COVID.”
Dr Moy said Australia would need to beef up its health system to cope.
“The PM goes out and says, ‘Yeah, yeah we’ll get to the stage where we won’t have lockdowns, it’ll be like the flu’. But hospitals are not coping now,” he said.
“We’ll learn a lot from what happens with the UK. Even though they’re not seeing deaths, they’re seeing a huge amount in the hospitals.”
Meanwhile, until we get vaccinated, the only way to stop continuous lockdowns is to fix hotel quarantine, according to infectious diseases expert Bill Bowtell, an adjunct professor at the University of NSW.
“All of Australia is paying a terrible price, and has been let down by the failures of quarantine,” he told The New Daily.
Professor Bowtell said this was the most serious national emergency Australia has faced since World War II and it was far from over.
He said the country needed to focus on getting daily case numbers back to zero and vaccinating everyone.
“Then we can figure out what to do about prudently and safely opening up,” he said.
“But that is a while away. It is not happening in a month or two.”