Even in best case, 11 million unvaccinated when nation ‘opens up’

A leading epidemiologist says lockdowns and other health measures will still be needed once Australia gets beyond a 70 per cent COVID-19 vaccination rate, warning that “opening up” with 70 per cent of the population vaccinated leaves millions exposed.

Aug 25, 2021, updated Aug 25, 2021
Professor Marylouise McLaws says the booster jab will give Australians 'supercharged' immunity from Covid-19. (Photo: UniNSW).

Professor Marylouise McLaws says the booster jab will give Australians 'supercharged' immunity from Covid-19. (Photo: UniNSW).

As NSW reports the highest daily increase in infections since the pandemic began, governments and health expects continue to debate the strategy for allowing vaccinations to protect Australians instead of ongoing lockdowns and restrictions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned ongoing lockdowns will cause more harm than benefit when the 70 per cent vaccination benchmark set out in the national plan is reached.

He insists high case numbers will not derail a national plan despite some states warning Doherty Institute modelling needs more work.

Under the agreement, lockdowns will be less likely at 70 per cent and become highly targeted at 80 per cent.

Morrison said negative economic and mental health impacts would outweigh benefits when 70 and 80 per cent immunisation coverage is reached.

“That’s the advice, that’s the basis for the plan. We’ve all signed up to it, we need to get on with it,” Morrison told the Seven Network.

Epidemiologist Mary Louise McLaws said even at 70 per cent of over-16s being vaccinated, it still left 4.8 million under-16s and 6.2 million unvaccinated adults spreading the virus in the community.

She said even at an 80 per cent rate there would be nine million unvaccinated Australians.

And overseas experience was showing older people who had received their jabs early in the vaccination program would quickly need booster shots if they were to be protected from serious illness.

“It is not like lockdowns are going to disappear – they’re just not,” she told the ABC.

Measures such as rapid antigen testing at schools and major public events may also be needed, she said.

WA Premier Mark McGowan wants new modelling given high levels of virus circulating in NSW, and predictions the state will be hitting four digit daily increases of cases within a week.

NSW today reported another 919 locally-acquired cases of COVID-19, as well as two more deaths, including that of a woman in her thirties who died at home.

NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said there were 645 people in hospital, including 113 in intensive care – 98 of whom were not vaccinated.

“Vaccination is the key,” Chant said.

“We need to increase those vaccine coverage levels and can I just urge everyone to take up the opportunity for vaccination as soon as possible.”

Victoria reported 45 new cases, while the ACT reported nine.

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Queensland, by contrast, reported no locally-acquired or overseas-acquired cases – Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk described it as a “double donut day” – and also reclassified two suspected cases from yesterday to no longer be COVID-19.

Palaszczuk is waiting to read the Doherty Institute’s updated advice, expected to be given to national cabinet on Friday, before she will speculate on how Queensland might respond to various vaccination milestones. She blamed a lack of supply for the state’s slow rollout.

“If the Federal Government wants to give me 100,000 more Pfizers I’ll put them into people’s arms,” Palaszczuk told reporters.

In a statement, the Doherty Institute said opening up at hundreds of cases nationally a day would be possible at 70 per cent vaccination coverage.

“However, we will need vigilant public health interventions with higher case loads,” it said.

The institute said hitting that vaccination rate would make it easier to live with the virus, similar to the flu.

“However, it won’t be possible to maintain a situation where there are no cases at all.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused the prime minister of pretending the report ruled out lockdowns at 70 per cent coverage.

“Mr Morrison is a barrier to the end of the tunnel, not the light. He’s the gaslight on the hill,” Albanese told Labor MPs and senators in Canberra.

He said Morrison desperately wanted to argue he was pro-freedom while casting everyone else as being against reopening.

Australia has fully vaccinated 30.27 per cent of its population aged 16 and over and 52.78 have received one jab.

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