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As the world opens, Australia seals itself off

For most of the past 18 months, Australia has been hailed as a world leader in terms of its handling of the pandemic. But now, some of our biggest cities have been plunged back into lockdowns, restrictions and border closures.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

BETH:
From Schwartz Media I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am.

 

For most of the past 18 months Australia has been hailed as a world leader in terms of its handling of the pandemic.

 

But now, some of our biggest cities have been plunged back into lockdowns, restrictions and border closures, while Europe and the United States re-open.

 

Last week the federal government outlined a plan to get us back to some kind of normality but it’s been criticised for being pretty light on the details.

 

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on whether Australia wasted its good luck, and when we might finally reopen.

[Theme Music Ends]

BETH:
 

Hey, Rick. 

 

RICK:
 

Hey Beth, how are you?

 

BETH:

I'm good you're in a blanket fort.

 

RICK:
 

I'm sorry about that, but this is about as good looking as I'm going to be today. I'm trying to hide myself from the world.

 

BETH:

I love it.

 

RICK:
 

Or at least ensconced myself in that slightly audio friendly environment. 

 

BETH:

I feel underdressed, are you good to go?

 

RICK:
 

I am. 


 

BETH:

Rick, Sydney’s lockdown has just been extended for another week, but across a lot of the developed world we’re seeing countries re-open. So what’s going on?

 

RICK:
 

Yeah, it's pretty wild that places like Europe and the United States, where we saw kind of, you know, hundreds of thousands of people die and many, many millions of cases where people were locked down for months and months and months, they kind of now returning to a sense of normal, certainly a sense of Covid normal. 

Archival tape -- US Reporter 1:

“Americans are now allowed to travel to the European Union this morning the European council formalised a recommendation that calls on member states to gradually lift travel restrictions for a small group of countries that includes the United States…” 

 

RICK:
 

The European Union has opened its borders again. People are travelling across, from the US to Europe for Summer holidays.

Archival tape -- Unknown Person 1:

“...Now we are going to Iceland!...”

Archival tape -- Unknown Person 2:

 

“...We’ve recently got vaccinated…”

 

RICK:
 

In New York City, which was pretty much the epicentre of the Covid outbreak in the United States. We've just seen huge marches and parties for Pride.

Archival tape -- US Reporter 2:

“...Look behind me here you can see six hours after this began, after the first marching, we still have people marching in the streets…”

 

RICK:
 

All across Europe, huge soccer matches are being held for the Euro Soccer Cup, players and fans are travelling from country to country, celebrating this big moment in sport.

Archival tape -- UK Reporter 1:

“...It's absolutely sensational play…”

 

RICK:
 

And in bars across the United Kingdom, which also had so much death and chaos last year, in particular, soccer fans are singing the iconic soccer anthem, football is coming home. 

Archival tape -- Crowd:

“Footballs coming home again!”
 

RICK:
 

You know, Wimbledon is on. It's all happening. There was a standing ovation at Wimbledon for the inventor of the Oxford University AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Archival tape -- Unknown Person 3:

“Today they include leaders who have developed the anti covid vaccines…”

 

<Crowd cheers!>

 

RICK:
 

But in Australia, things are very different. 

 

We've seen lockdown's in most major cities recently in Sydney where I am. It's like we're back in April, 2020.

 

It feels like we're at the beginning again. We're in lockdown. We've just halved international arrivals because we still don't have the right systems in place to protect the population. And we're shielding ourselves from the rest of the world just as things everywhere else are starting to return to some kind of normal. 

 

BETH:

Right, so how did we get here?

 

RICK:
 

Basically, it's down to vaccines. You know, the key thing about the vaccines is that even if they don't always stop transmission, they do prevent serious illnesses which lead to hospitalisation, then death. And because Covid-19 was so rampant around the world, governments got into gear and embarked on these massive vaccination programs, particularly in the United States and across Europe, where there was so much death and destruction.

 

And in the United States right now, just about half the population are fully vaccinated. That's both doses. That's one hundred and sixty million people. It's a huge, huge effort. 

 

And in the United Kingdom, also about half the country are fully vaccinated. Here in Australia, things are a little bit. In fact, they're very different. If I'm honest, 

 

Only seven percent of the population are fully vaccinated and not even 20 percent have received one dose. It's the lowest rate in the OECD and it's left us vulnerable to these outbreaks which have led to these lockdowns. 

 

And it's hard to see a way out until we get those numbers up. 

 

BETH:

Yeah, I mean, these are pretty staggering statistics. So what's the plan to sort this out, to get us all vaccinated and in line with the rest of the world? 

 

RICK:
 

Well, you'll be pleased to know we actually have two plans. And we saw the first one come out on Monday last week when we saw that confusing press conference from Scott Morrison after National Cabinet  

 

Where he, without the knowledge of State Premiers, started suggesting younger Australians should ask about getting the AstraZeneca vaccine, even though it wasn't the preferred option for under sixties, according to the medical advice. 

 

It wasn't received particularly well that press conference.

Archival tape -- Steven Miles:

“For the Prime Minister to attempt to overrule the medical advice and provide a vaccine that is not recommended for people under 60 puts Queenslanders at risk.”
 

RICK:
 

It confused a lot of people and it probably contributed to even more vaccine hesitancy. 

Archival tape -- Jeannette Young:

“Well I haven’t been able to talk to him and to understand his thought processes…”

 

RICK:
 

So Morrison started to face more and more political pressure throughout the week.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“It was another reminder, a reminder of this government's incompetence when it comes to the rolling out of the vaccine…”

RICK:
 

He actually kind of disappeared throughout the week and didn't do any press or even tweet. 

 

And then he came up with the next plan. 

 

BETH:

We’ll be right back

[Advertisement]

BETH:

Rick, Scott Morrison has been under increasing pressure to chart a way forward for Australia. So what did he come up with?

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

<Camera’s click>

“G'day...”

 

RICK:
 

So last Friday, he rolled out into the Prime Ministerial courtyard in Parliament House after yet another National Cabinet meeting. 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Many Australians today will be listening on in their home cities or where they live, while they are subject to covid restrictions…”

 

RICK:
 

And he announced his plan to get Australia out of this current situation of outbreaks and yo-yoing in and out of lockdown. 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“The good news I have for Australians who are subject to restrictions today is we have agreed a new deal for Australians on the pathway out of Covid-19…”

 

RICK:
 

And back to a position where life would return to some kind of normal. 

 

So there are four phases to it. And the goal is to lay out a road map to get us to a point where lockdowns aren't necessary anymore. And, you know, we can reopen the international borders. Phase one of this plan is sort of the phase we've been in since January, February anyway.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“The first phase is the one where in. Vaccinate, prepare and pilot.” 

RICK:

It's vaccinate, prepare and pilot.

rchival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“That involves the implementation of the National Vaccination Plan to offer every Australian opportunity to be vaccinated with the necessary doses of the relevant vaccine as soon as possible.” 

 

RICK:
 

So that involves things like piloting these new ideas, like home quarantine for vaccinated travellers rather than just putting them in hotels. And these are ideas that have been floating around for quite some time now. But those are expected to kind of be small trials and we don't have any details on when they will actually start. 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Lockdowns in the current phase to be only used as a last resort, was agreed today.” 

RICK:
 

Phase two is the post vaccination phase, which they're suggesting could happen in the second half of next year. We'll enter that phase when we've got a majority of the country vaccinated. Now, there's a suggestion that we might let in more international travellers at that point if they are vaccinated. And they would only need to do a week in quarantine instead of the current two weeks. 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“The third phase is called the consolidation phase, and that is to manage Covid-19 consistent with public health management of other infectious diseases.” 

RICK:

So phase three is really interesting and really important and a conversation We had to have. That's essentially where the government hopes that we'll have no more lockdowns and no more cap on international travellers precisely because we start treating Covid-19 just like the seasonal flu, which is that, yes, people will get it, but the number of deaths won't be as high as it otherwise would have been because we've had to deal with it and we've got vaccinations. 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“That's the gate that we have to get through. Once we get through that gate and that'll be determined by the scientific evidence, then we will move into a phase where we seek to minimise serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality as a result of Covid-19.”

RICK:

Now, phase four is the magic one, which is completely back to normal, basically life as it was pre pandemic. 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“So what it means is Australia gets vaccinated, Australia is able to live differently.” 

BETH:

I mean this idea of returning to normality is pretty appealing, but are there any specific details to tell us how we’re actually going to get there?

 

RICK:
 

No. In fact, they refused to put a timeline on any of this stuff except for maybe the end of vaccinations, which will be, as I said, at the end of this year. 

 

But it's not really it's not really a plan. It's just a statement of reality. Right. Like we have to get to a point where we have vaccinated everyone. We all knew that we had a vaccination strategy beginning January, February this year. And so this part of the phase, the four phases, is not news to anyone. We're in it. And we just happened to be doing it very slowly. 

 

But there's no detail on how we're going to improve our vaccine rollout, what the targets will be, what the triggers will be for entering each phase.

 

You know, the government says it's working on modelling for what those triggers will be for each phase and particularly what the herd immunity kind of figure is going to be for vaccinations. 

 

But it really begs the question, you know, why has it taken us this long? 18 months into the pandemic, a full kind of six months after vaccines were available, to even start discussing this strategy and where we might have gone wrong, this is meant to alleviate concerns. But really, it just added more confusion to what was already a pretty confusing scenario. 

 

BETH:

Rick, as you said, this plan does feel like it is something that we could have had last year. You know, we've got this four phase plan. We don't even know when we're moving on to the next phase. The government says it could be some time next year. Why is this the best that we've got after 18 months of the pandemic? 

 

RICK:
 

Uh, that's a very good question, looking at what's happening in the rest of the world. It definitely wasn't inevitable that this is how things should have gone. 

 

You know, we could be at a point where so many other comparable countries are at or on track to be at, which is where people can plan their lives for the future. You know, things are open. You can travel to visit family and friends. You can travel even within your own country to visit family and friends. We don't even have that fully operational in Australia. 

 

But the government clearly thought it could rely on luck rather than actually doing the hard work. And all that luck has vanished in the absence of an actual plan to vaccinate the population. And that's a really key point. We didn't strike with any urgency. We thought and this is actually a common scenario across the world where the countries that did the best in managing the outbreaks, which included Australia and New Zealand, are amongst the worst. In fact, they are the worst when it comes to vaccinating. 

 

And it's almost like there wasn't a sense of urgency either among the population or the government. And that you can find that in the talking points with Scott Morrison, where he constantly says you wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world. Well, when it comes to a vaccination program, you would. 

 

BETH:

And I guess that’s what this is all really about Rick. Other countries are able to open up because they’re vaccinated. Does that mean that while our vaccination rates remain low we’re still going to be at risk of new outbreaks and further lockdowns?

 

RICK:
 

Basically yes, I mean, that's literally the reading of the four phases. 

 

You know, we're not going to finish phase one until the end of this year, at least at the earliest, I should say. 

 

And then by the time we get to phase two, which will be sometime next year, that's when we kind of start to eradicate lockdowns. According to the Prime Minister himself. 

 

So We've got lockdown's on the horizon. 

 

BETH:

Rick, thanks so much for your time. 

 

RICK:
 

Thanks so much, Beth, I appreciate it. 

[Advertisement]

[Theme Music Starts]

BETH:

Also in the news today,

 

NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has announced the Greater Sydney lockdown will be extended for another week after the state recorded 27 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday.

 

Authorities revealed there are currently 37 people in hospital, including seven patients in ICU. 

 

And, in Indonesia, hospitals in several regions are experiencing critical oxygen shortages as the country faces one of Asia’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
On Tuesday, Indonesia reported over 31,000 new infections and over 700 deaths, both record daily increases. 

 

I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am. I’ll see ya tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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