Let’s hope that was our last lockdown

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At last – a weekend that feels (almost) normal. We’ve been through the lockdown rollercoaster once more and come out the other side, again. How many more times will we have to go through this?

Lockdown 4.0 was, at least, successful as an emergency health measure and demonstrated that, finally, Victorian authorities appear to have effective contact tracing in place. But it dealt us a psychological and economic blow that we were not prepared for.

Melbourne’s most recent lockdown began on Friday, May 28.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Just when we were starting to imagine life returning to pre-COVID days, dreaming, possibly, about an overseas trip if not this year then the next, we were right back in the midst of it. Waiting for the daily case numbers. Cancelling plans.

As Alice Clarke wrote in these pages of her own post-lockdown ennui, “There doesn’t really feel much point in looking forward to big things, because they probably won’t happen … The light at the end of the tunnel is starting to look a bit dim.”

A little bleak, perhaps, but the horizon has shrunk for all of us, especially now the vaccination rollout – our golden ticket out of this – has stumbled into confusion and blame.

Australia’s vaccination rate is among the lowest globally: according to Our World in Data, we’re at an estimated 3.1 per cent fully vaccinated compared to 44.6 per cent in the US and 45.7 per cent in the UK. Even similarly tardy Japan and New Zealand are at around 6 per cent fully vaccinated.

There was a brief acceleration triggered by the Victorian outbreak, but that’s now been dampened thanks to the expert advice on AstraZeneca lifting the minimum age from 50 to 60 because of the risk of blood clots. Doctors have already reported mass cancellations, even for second doses. “A likely temporary reduction in daily vaccination rates,” is how the country’s COVID-19 Taskforce Commander, Lieutenant-General John Frewen, optimistically framed it on Friday.

The success of the vaccination programs in the US and the UK must be at least partly due to their perception of risk. Over there, the all too evident threat of COVID far outweighs the risks posed by any of the vaccines.

In Australia, where fewer people have died from the virus than are typically killed on our roads each year, we’re more alarmed by the possible adverse reactions. Can you blame anybody, now, for baulking at an AstraZeneca shot?

Labor deputy leader Richard Marles warned on Nine’s Today program that “we are going to be living in the land of the lockdown” until we are all vaccinated. But there must be a better way.

Mass vaccination, obviously, is still a priority despite understandable jitters.

But experts do not yet agree on the population percentage that will result in herd immunity. The vaccines themselves do not guarantee against infection. And as we push to reopening international travel, we will have to accept a level of risk that comes with that. Nor are lockdowns sustainable in the long term, as Victorians know better than anyone.

More infectious disease experts are questioning the necessity of continued lockdowns. Across Australia since December, of 17 outbreaks, only six triggered snap lockdowns. The rest were managed by restrictions and contact tracing. NSW has always preferred to roll out layered restrictions, and it was that state’s initial approach again this week with its Bondi cluster: to tighten the net.

Now it seems that Victoria at last has NSW-standard contact tracing, which can keep up with at least a small outbreak, the question is whether the health detectives could be successful outside a complete lockdown.

Could a state or city-wide shutdown be avoided by harnessing restrictions on social movement, mask wearing, swift publication and possible closure of exposure sites and – finally – our standardised, if still imperfect, QR code check-in system?

If this all seems possible, we must move away from triggering a lockdown as our immediate response to the next inevitable outbreak. Tweak the dials, as it were, rather than punch the big red button every time.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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