The keys to opening up the country post-COVID are a set of “magic numbers” outlining just how many vaccines have to be administered before it is safe to go ahead.
And National Cabinet will today get its first glimpse of what they might look like.
Today’s meeting will likely be dominated again by the worsening Sydney outbreak and the measures being taken to contain it, but it will also look further into the months ahead.
Last month, the Prime Minister revealed he had asked the experts at the Doherty Institute, a Melbourne-based research hub on infectious diseases, to work on modelling how Australia could use vaccines to emerge from COVID-19.
Speaking ahead of National Cabinet at a virtual town hall meeting with his constituents in Sydney overnight, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the nation’s leaders would today examine those numbers.
“To enable the sort of things many of you have asked us about tonight, about what can vaccinated people be able to do in the next phase?
“That’s the next step and we’ll be setting a vaccination target that we have to achieve as a percentage of the eligible population, and it’s all about then us going out and trying to achieve it.”
The idea is to eventually turn that modelling into clear “vaccine thresholds” — markers of how many Australians have to be vaccinated, before the country can open itself up to more risk in managing COVID-19.
Importantly, the economic boffins at Treasury will also get some input as they outline the financial risks and benefits of the various approaches.
The Doherty Institute has been plugging away at it for weeks and has handed some of that work to the federal government.
Those ideas will be shared with National Cabinet today — but it could still be weeks before numbers are agreed to, or made public.
What are they looking at, exactly?
National Cabinet agreed last month to a four-phase plan out of the pandemic.
We are currently in phase one — with only some of the country vaccinated, and relying on measures like lockdowns (which were supposed to be a “last resort”) to deal with outbreaks.
Scott Morrison has asked the Doherty Institute to help come up with “vaccine thresholds” at which the country can move to phase 2.
Phase 2 would see focus shift from case numbers to the numbers of people winding up in hospital or dying from the virus.
It would hopefully see an end to internal border restrictions and lockdowns for vaccinated people, and also soften international borders somewhat with new quarantine arrangements for vaccinated travellers.
Mr Morrison told his constituents as part of that phase, he would like to see a digital vaccine passport introduced to help Australians move more freely.
That’s despite previously receiving pushback from some state premiers when first flagging the prospect earlier this year.
“I raised this some months ago and actually copped a lot of flak for raising it actually, to suggest that should be considered,” he said.
“What we’ve done is, people who have been vaccinated, particularly when they get to their second dose, you’ve got your vaccination certificate, that is a digital vaccine certificate and in a matter of days you’ll be able to drop one of those into a digital Apple wallet and the Google one is not too far beyond that.”
But such a move will obviously require a much greater number of Australians to be fully vaccinated.
With less than 20 per cent of adults fully vaccinated, a rate lagging behind many other developed countries, any such step is many months away.
The Doherty Institute has tried to work out what that number might be.
It is coming up with various scenarios, like how much risk is carried by a vaccination rate of 60 per cent, 70 per cent or 80 per cent.
And the advice goes beyond specific figures — looking at how the health system would cope with different scenarios, and the challenges posed by changing variants of the virus.
But as important as the health advice is, it is not the only voice being listened to.
Every move comes at a cost
Whenever the Prime Minister has spoken of the Doherty modelling of late, he has mentioned the input of Treasury too.
Speaking to AM yesterday, Mr Morrison said it is critical all angles of the problem are considered.
“We’re doing this scientifically on the basis of that very good (Doherty) modelling, which is informing us,” he said.
Treasury can speak to the cost of waiting longer, to reach higher vaccination rates, before moving to “phase 2”, easing restrictions and providing more certainty.
But it can also speak to the cost of lockdowns that could come if the country opens up too early, and the virus wreaks havoc among a large unvaccinated population.
Mr Morrison has made clear both sets of advice will be heavily considered as any decision is made.
He told his constituents that when that vaccination target is achieved, Australians will have more options.
“Once we get to that rate, I do have that view that states should be looking, and get it as consistent as possible around the country that if you’re vaccinated, that means you might be able to, if you went overseas or something like that you could quarantine at home and not have to do it in hotels, and do it under different arrangements,” he said.
“Perhaps if there are isolated outbreaks and things like that and you’re vaccinated, you’d be able to go on with your trip to other parts of the country and things like that.”
Warnings from abroad
As Australia starts the process of thinking about re-entering the world with a considerably-vaccinated population, it has plenty of real-world examples to consider.
The UK had its “Freedom Day” nearly a fortnight ago, with almost all restrictions lifted domestically as the adult vaccination rate hit 68 per cent.
It is softening its international borders, with fully vaccinated travellers from the United States and Europe allowed to enter without quarantine.
It is early days in the UK but, while experts remain cautious about picking trends, case numbers have been falling of late (that said, they are still in the tens of thousands each day).
The UK is hoping to prove with a high (and still growing) vaccination rate, it can safely open up to itself and to the world.
The Netherlands perhaps provides more of a cautionary tale.
It lifted most COVID restrictions in late June but was forced to re-impose many of them as cases started to soar (although hospitalisations did not climb quite as rapidly).
Restaurants and bars were forced to close, multi-day festivals have been cancelled for the rest of the European summer and some other European countries have begun re-imposing travel restrictions.
About 50 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated.
Mr Morrison said a retreat into lockdown is exactly what he wants to avoid occurring in Australia, and the experience of countries abroad is being watched closely as the thresholds are considered.
Delta changes things a bit
Any work that was being done earlier this year on vaccine thresholds is being reconsidered as the Delta strain of COVID-19 changes the shape of the pandemic.
The “four-phase” plan to move Australia out of the pandemic was agreed in early July, when New South Wales was recording a few dozen cases of COVID-19 each day.
Greater Sydney is now weeks into a hard lockdown, battling rising case numbers and shaken by how Delta is spreading.
While lockdowns were a last resort in the plan, they are now being turned to very early in response to a Delta outbreak.
The question for those putting together vaccine thresholds is now whether or not Delta requires a higher marker.
Delta is more contagious than the original strain and potentially more deadly for younger people too.
Another question is, even if National Cabinet agrees to implement thresholds and chart a common path out of the pandemic, will the states stick to it?
Throughout the pandemic, the states have exercised their autonomy in a whole range of areas.
They have dictated how restrictions are imposed and how they are lifted.
They have exerted their influence on quarantine caps, and closed their own borders whenever they see fit.
The approach to handling the pandemic has been far from consistent across the states and territories.
It is a very open question whether or not the path out — once it comes — will be any different.