Covid-zero is becoming even less plausible by the day

The delta outbreak in NSW hit 1,000 cases a day this week, with no signs of slowing down. Melbourne is close to 100 cases a day, despite what could only be described as a punitive lockdown and some positive signs earlier in the week that the outbreak may be trending downwards there.

The ACT seems slightly more fortunate in managing its outbreak, but no-one would claim victory at this point.

In the larger metropolitan centres at least, anyone with confidence that Covid can easily be eliminated is simply blind to the rapidly accumulating evidence to the contrary. Australia’s ‘Covid Zero’ approach is facing a stern test — and not holding up well.

The public is starting to reject the narrative that the solution is earlier and harder lockdowns. Indeed, a recent YouGov survey by the Centre for Independent Studies shows the growing unhappiness with the current situation.

Just 13% of respondents said that lockdowns should continue until Covid was completely eliminated from Australia (a further 13% thought some restrictions should continue regardless of eradication).

This is compared with 37% who wanted lockdowns ended as soon as practicable and a further 34% who thought they should end once the vaccine threshold was reached. It seems, outside social media, the pro-lockdown crowd is shrinking in inverse proportion to the booming case numbers.

In fact, the pro-lockdown group is shrinking from both ends. Not only are people becoming distressed by the long lockdown, many are losing faith that Covid Zero will even last long term.

Just 10% of respondents to our survey though it was almost certain or very likely Covid-19 can be permanently eradicated in Australia. By contrast, 62% believed it was unlikely.

Faced with this loss of public support, we are seeing the emergence of new, pro-lockdown, arguments in real time.

As an aside, it’s a fascinating process, seeing a seemingly plausible argument enter the public square and then proliferate across social media and pro-lockdown politicians faster than any contagious virus. The speed and uniformity of subsequent repetitions could easily lead someone who hadn’t seen the process from the beginning to assume there was a conspiracy.

One suspects this is the origin of ‘Russian bot’ conspiracy theories over the 2016 US election.

Four such pro-lockdown arguments have leapt to prominence in a short period of time, though some have been shot down almost as soon as they emerged.

The first, which was the shortest lived, was that we had to get back to Covid Zero or the Doherty Institute modelling of post-vaccine opening was invalid. When the Institute itself disputed this, it was quickly dropped.

The next argument is likely to be the main focus of pro-lockdown advocates for the next few months, and it has strains of Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons, who used to bleat “won’t someone think of the children?”

This argument posits that children haven’t yet had the chance to be vaccinated, and can catch delta, so how can we possibly end lockdown until our kids are all vaccinated?

Our polling indicated that just 10% of respondents thought restrictions should remain in place until all adults and children have been vaccinated, but it’s likely this percentage will rise, particularly as this pro-lockdown point has been taken up by Labor politicians.

ATAGI is now recommending vaccination of those 12 to 15 as they have noted adolescents are catching Covid at similar rates to adults. However they also noted “the severity of COVID-19 is less in adolescents (with approximately 4-7% experiencing severe outcomes) compared with adults.”

This suggests we can reasonably safely end lockdowns while rolling out a vaccination program for younger Australians.

A recent branching of this argument is that certain vulnerable groups haven’t been vaccinated yet, so we need to reprioritise the vaccine rollout (yet again) and slow things down until we can be sure all these groups have 100% coverage.

It’s hard to be certain how the public will react to this, but there are good reasons to think it won’t sway them.

It is one thing to argue that kids who are ineligible for vaccination should have a chance to get vaccinated first, it is quite another to hold the rest of the population hostage for individuals who have been eligible to get vaccinated for months but have chosen not to do so.

After all, 40% of the respondents to our survey indicated that they think restrictions should be lifted when either 50% or more of those at risk have been vaccinated or all adults have been offered access to two doses — regardless of their personal choice to get vaccinated or not.

At some point, individuals must take some responsibility for getting vaccinated.

The last pro-lockdown argument is that our aim should be widespread vaccination on top of our existing Covid Zero strategy. This has found favour in WA and to a lesser extent in Queensland.

The greatest problem with this argument is that it seems to mean effectively abandoning our old way of life for years, perhaps decades… maybe forever.

While there are some treatments that make a difference, vaccines are the primary line of defence against Covid and they are not bulletproof. If this is not enough, then it seems likely that Covid Zero states will be fighting increasingly difficult battles against ever more contagious Covid variants.

The ‘vaccine plus Covid Zero’ states are accepting that sporadic, state-wide lockdowns will occur every few months for the rest of our lives. Surely this cannot be accepted by the public?

When close to twice as many people say their trust in government has gone down as a result of the pandemic (46%) than gone up (28%), the political winds may finally be shifting against those who have promised safety at the expense of everything else.

The fact is, the public are getting fed up. Fed up with carrying the can for politicians who are constantly moving the goalposts, fed up with the constantly changing rules, fed up with thoroughly stuffed up response. Fed up with lockdowns.

The shrinking minority who want to be cocooned in bubble wrap won’t be able to trap the rest of us in our homes forever.