Long-awaited vaccination modelling from the Doherty Institute will finally be revealed on Friday, with national cabinet to discuss the number of jabs Australia needs to give before COVID restrictions and lockdowns can finally end.
But Health Minister Greg Hunt says it won’t be as simple as a “magic number” being tacked on to Scott Morrison’s ‘four-stage plan’ for reopening.
Instead, one leading epidemiologist said Australians may even end up slightly disappointed, with scientific modelling likely to include a complex set of interconnected targets across age, health status and location.
“It’s not just the total number. We won’t see ‘X per cent’. We have to look at the distribution of vaccines through the community,” said Catherine Bennett, Deakin University’s chair in epidemiology.
“We might get a range, the minimum number we want to get to … but it won’t be just a fixed number,” Professor Bennett said.
Modelling finally revealed
Earlier in July, Mr Morrison announced the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity would help set vaccination thresholds for each step of his plan to reopen Australia from the pandemic.
The four-step plan, gradually relaxing rules and restrictions, would be “triggered by the achievement of vaccination thresholds” as a percentage of the population aged over 16.
The current phase includes vaccinating as many people as possible, boosting quarantine networks and trialling home quarantine options.
The second ‘post-vaccination’ phase would ease lockdown and border restrictions for the vaccinated, see lockdowns only used in “extreme circumstances”, and boost international arrivals.
The final two phases would see almost all rules removed, with the final goal of managing COVID in the same way as “other infectious diseases”.
National cabinet will be presented with the modelling for the first time on Friday, plus advice from Treasury on various scenarios.
Mr Morrison said that would include “the costs of lockdowns and the costs of providing support and compared to the alternatives”.
“There are not many countries in the world … using such a scientific process to actually hit what these marks are,” he said on Thursday.
National cabinet will also consider the latest COVID disaster payment changes, the wider vaccine rollout, and plans for freight codes.
Numbers won’t be simple
But rather than Doherty setting specific targets for the whole population, The New Daily understands it will be a nuanced set of numbers, with various goals for different cohorts.
For instance, each stage could include one figure for the broader population, another higher number for high-risk groups, and yet another for older Australians.
“[The modelling] will actually set out what the spectrum of risk is across various levels of vaccination in the population and what the levels of vaccination in high-risk vulnerable groups are,” Mr Morrison said on July 9.
The Doherty Institute and the Prime Minister’s office said they couldn’t share any specific information ahead of time.
Speaking on 6PR radio, Mr Hunt was asked if modelling would show a “magic number”.
He said national cabinet “don’t have a final figure yet”, but there would be “a series of different steps”.
Separate modelling from the Grattan Institute suggested Australia would need about 80 per cent general vaccination, and 95 per cent of over-70s, to open up fully.
Even that number could see some 2000 COVID deaths a year, and thousands of cases a day.
Professor Bennett, who wasn’t involved in the Doherty modelling, expected it would include a set of interlinked numbers, not a simple headline figure.
“I think everyone will be disappointed. We might see a bit of change and clarity in the plan, and a few more things in the nearer horizon,” she told TND.
“Once we get to a certain percentage, as we see overseas, it de-risks us. We would be in a better position, even if the virus forces us to open.”
80 per cent vaccination needed
That “certain percentage” is the million-dollar question.
Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole said it would likely need 80 to 85 per cent of all Australians – including children – vaccinated to prevent transmission of COVID and effectively eliminate the virus here.
“But if you look at the world now, no country has yet reached a proportion of their population fully vaccinated that would allow them to not have outbreaks,” Professor Toole told TND.
Australia is not yet vaccinating children.
University of Melbourne data found 22 per cent of adults were currently vaccine hesitant; a sharp dip from 33 per cent in May, but Professor Toole noted it would mean Australia may not reach 80 per cent of total population.
This, he said, meant national cabinet would have to “accept” some number that is lower than elimination.
“It depends what they deem acceptable … anything under 80 per cent won’t prevent transmission,” Professor Toole said.
He estimated ‘post-vaccination’ Phase B of the reopening would require about 70 per cent of adults vaccinated.
With 11.79 million jabs administered as of Thursday, 39 per cent of the 16-and-over population has had one vaccine, and 17.7 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Peter Collignon, infectious disease expert at the Australian National University, cited 75 to 80 per cent of adults as the figure needed for the next stage of reopening.
On current daily vaccination rates, with Australia delivering 201,000 jabs on Wednesday, he estimated that mark would be hit some time around November.
Professor Collignon said that would be an “important time” for Australia’s reopening; warmer weather at year’s end would mean fewer infections, while that timing would allow for more data from vaccinated populations in Europe and America.
“But nobody knows the answer. It depends what we’re aiming for,” Professor Collignon told TND.
“If we’re aiming for herd immunity and no transmission, that’ll be problematic.”
He expected national cabinet would begin aiming for “minimal death and minimal hospitalisations”, instead of the current goal of zero transmission.
This is consistent with recent words from Mr Morrison and Mr Hunt, who have spoken of shifting tack to preventing serious illness rather than virus elimination.
“We won’t be able to have zero COVID, but we’ll manage the consequences,” Professor Collignon said.
But rather than expecting all rules to be dropped at some point, he said Australians should prepare for long-running restrictions – perhaps even rules that change with the weather, and virus danger periods.
He noted the US was bringing back face mask recommendations in some areas, after previously scrapping them.
Indeed, Mr Hunt said on Thursday the world would be living with COVID for “decades”.
“Restrictions should be proportionate to risk at the time. Maybe there will be more rules in winter than summer,” Professor Collignon said.
“People shouldn’t expect to go back to totally normal. We’ll have restrictions for at least a year. Indoor masks may come back, or limits on visitors at home.”
Independent senator Rex Patrick wants the Doherty modelling “released in full without delay”, so it could be “subject to independent scrutiny and debate.”
Labor’s shadow health minister Mark Butler wanted it shared immediately.
Mr Hunt told TND the modelling would eventually be made public, but didn’t commit to firm timing.