View from The Hill: Achieving vaccine targets could be followed by a (pre-election) health ‘pinch point’

Originally published on theconversation.com

Scott Morrison has taken to likening Australia’s coming out of COVID to the Croods, a family in a children’s film, emerging from a cave. That’s when he is not urging us to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.

Anthony Albanese’s riposte is that Scott is “not the light at the end [of the tunnel], he’s the gaslight on the hill”.

The country is probably unlucky it’s grappling with the pandemic’s third wave as a federal election looms early next year. That puts a thick patina of politics on this national crisis.

Trite comparisons, slogans, personal jibes abound, and political considerations inevitably feed into the government’s desperation to lift the pall COVID’s lockdowns and border closures are imposing on the economy and our lives.

Morrison sees the Doherty Institute modelling – with its 70% and 80% vaccination gateways – as the nation’s and his government’s way out. But, leaving aside any criticism of the modelling, there are two big problems for the PM on the road ahead.

The most talked about is the recalcitrant states. Despite his four-stage plan, Morrison can’t guarantee when the whole country might be open because that will be decided by the states.

The premiers of Western Australia and Queensland will open their borders or keep them closed according to their calculations of their states’ interests.

There’ll be some short term politics in their decisions, but that should be limited because both have recently had elections, which they won well. They don’t have to give nearly as much thought to their own political fortunes as Morrison does to his. Some observers think these Labor premiers will have an eye to what might help Anthony Albanese, but this is likely to be minor, considering the stakes.

The situation of states that are basically COVID free was summed up on Monday by Perth radio interviewer Oliver Peterson when he spoke to Morrison. “Can you see the conundrum here, … [at] 70 %, WA has to go backwards in putting restrictions like the two square metre rule, caps on venues and stadiums? Right now we’re living in a restriction-free life”.

Precisely. If, as things go forward to the required vaccination rates, Mark McGowan were to open his border as early as Morrison would like, he would be accepting that COVID would break out in WA. That would bring health and economic uncertainties he would have to manage.

That isn’t to argue WA should delay, or to maintain COVID zero can be maintained in a state forever. Rather, it’s to say that one could understand McGowan’s caution, when facing a decision that could involve a trade off between the interests of his population and Australia’s wider interests.

Recalcitrant states, however, might be the lesser of the problems facing Morrison in coming months. We know all about Doherty’s existing modelling on vaccine targets. Attention must now move to the next stage of modelling.

The institute said in its Monday’s statement: “The team of modellers from across Australia led by the Doherty Institute is now working through the implementation issues specific to the states and territories, specific populations and high risk settings.”

When we reach the vaccination targets, we are looking at what we might dub “pinch points”, and if they are not properly prepared for, the situation could be ugly.

We know when things are opened (even with some restrictions maintained and safeguards imposed) cases will increase and spread, and fast. While hospitalisations and deaths will be contained by most people having been vaccinated, there will still be severe pressure on the health system in particular.

The Australian Medical Association on Tuesday drew attention to this threat, issuing an ABC interview by its vice president Chris Moy.

Moy said: “Focusing on the Doherty numbers – great – but you’ve got to look at what’s really going to be the reality, which is the health system is going to have to bear this burden.

“Remember, next year we’re still going to be vaccinating, potentially with booster shots as well. So it’s a real perfect storm: while having to cope with what we look after now, plus COVID, plus delayed [health] care, plus having to vaccinate next year. It’s going to be a big year in health and not a smaller year,” Moy said.

“We’re a fairly long way from being able to be ready for a very large influx of infectious patients who have to be cared for, for a long period of time, and that planning needs to happen now.”

Morrison wants the country open and the economy humming by election time, with COVID off the front pages. He and Health Minister Greg Hunt are confident the hospital situation will be in hand. But, ahead of its start, they were confident about the vaccine program too.

If the “pinch point” of escalating cases – and don’t believe Morrison’s hope there wouldn’t be attention on case numbers anymore – and overloaded hospitals coincided with the approaching election, that could be a political as well as an actual nightmare.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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