Australian PM Scott Morrison is under pressure from a Delta Covid outbreak that just won’t go away and a vaccination programme which – what shall we say – lacks urgency.
So it’s the right time to bring out a bold long-term plan for re-integrating Australia into the modern world.
But the plan is less of a roadmap, than a sketch of what a happy journey might look like.
It starts by going backwards: confirming the government will indefinitely lock more Australians both in and out of the country (with continued preference for politically approved travel no doubt).
The forward steps are partial, and contingent on perhaps unrealistically high vaccination levels – with a promised easing of travel restrictions once double vaccination of over-16s reaches 80% (for comparison, Britain has just topped 70% on this measure).
By making opening dependent on vaccination, Morrison is putting his plan’s future (and perhaps his own) in the arms of anti-vaxxers. It does not look like strong encouragement for them to rush to get vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the Delta variant is so transmissible that even high levels of vaccination haven’t stopped its spread (although they hugely reduce its lethality). Case numbers are only now declining in the UK, where surveys show more than 90% of the population have acquired Covid antibodies (either by vaccine or infection)
Morrison’s plan looks like a brave attempt to jump slowly and painlessly over the virus to where Europe and the US are. In those places, Delta variant cases have surged but death rates are at their lowest level in more than a year.
Moreover, in those countries there are signs – albeit with plenty of hesitation, false starts and fear of new strains – that Covid is moving down the priority list to one of many public health / economic issues, with the possibility that it will be eclipsed by broader issues such as rebuilding health care capability, restoring sustained economic growth or even future problems, like dealing with China or Russia.
New Zealand’s leadership – with the benefit of seeing Scott Morrison’s leap into the shark tank – are due to announce their own Covid exit strategy later this week. Having evaded Australian levels of criticism despite failing to achieve Australian levels of vaccination – NZ’s 35.8 doses per 100 residents lags Australia’s 48.1, and indeed Peru (39.8) and Russia (42.9) – they might hope that their luck will continue to hold.
Equally, the government could take note of Morrison’s experience and use the opportunity to put some drive into the vaccination process. They might point out that Delta and its improved strains will probably never go away and vaccination will reduce your chance of death manyfold when NZ opens up at each stage of the carefully worked-out plan.
That would be a bold move.
But perhaps waiting for something to turn up looks safer. After all, NZ doesn’t face Australia’s pressure of needing to be open for the Brisbane Olympic Games in 2032.