Almost by sleight of hand, the COVID agenda of Liberal Party leaders changed last week. For the initial two months of the lockdown, Berejiklian reiterated that the most important figure being announced during the 11 am daily pandemic press conference was infections out in the community.
Yet, by last Friday, this number was no longer being released to the public. And the NSW premier advised that this was due to vaccination rates now being the most important figure, signalling the general party line, which has become the abandoning of the zero COVID case target.
As per its National Plan to Transition Australia’s National COVID-19 Response, the Coalition are now walking the entire nation into a scenario where all states open up at 70 and 80 percent adult vaccination rates, regardless of how many active cases are circulating in the community.
“If not at 70 percent and 80 percent, then when?” the prime minister rhetorically asked Australia at a 23 August press conference. However, Scott Morrison is not being entirely open about the future he’s proposing the country should look forward to following “freedom day”.
The Doherty “thought experiment”
The National Plan is based on the Doherty Report. And despite the way Morrison’s been spruiking it, it doesn’t provide concrete scientific evidence.
It’s a “hypothetical scenario that’s a thought experiment, not a prediction”, explained Doherty Institute Professor Jodie McVernon at a 3 August press conference, as she stood beside the PM.
Indeed, based upon the report, the National Plan is comprised of four phases, yet the Doherty scenario only encompasses the first two phases, and the initial one is what we are actually living through right now.
The reason why the Labor states are considering reneging on the plan is due to the Doherty scenario being passed upon opening up at 70 and 80 percent adult vaccination rates at a time when there are only 30 COVID cases circulating in the community, not the daily thousand we are currently facing.
The Doherty Report states that opening up at these points, with the current – less than optimum – TTIQ (test, trace, isolation and quarantine) measures, would result in around 35,000 to 55,000 new daily infections at the six month point.
This is based on that 30 case scenario starting point. It would also involve between 1,700 to 2,700 deaths at six months in. And then the report simply cuts off at this yet to peak stage, without contemplating what’s to come next.
There are alternatives
As we make our way through the tenth lockdown week, Sydney residents are close to breaking point, and the premier is now asking those who’ve forgone numerous liberties and freedoms for months on end, to get used to higher levels of sickness and death than ever experienced before.
The Lockdown to Zero – Health Before Profits campaign has been launched in an effort to warn the general public that even though the conservative leaders of our nation are providing it with no other choice, there is a very real choice between our health and the profits of corporations.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Lockdown to Zero spokesperson Josh Lees about the reasons behind the government decision to ditch COVID zero, the experience the UK and Israel are having since opening up under similar circumstances, and the better way recommended by the campaign.
The Lockdown to Zero campaign was launched a fortnight ago. It’s calling on our nation to adhere to stay-at-home orders and other measures until the number of cases in the community is stamped out completely.
Up until recently, this was what the majority of the nation was aiming for, but that’s not the case anymore. So, Josh, what’s changed? And why is this campaign necessary?
Two things have come together. The new outbreak in NSW, which is a result of two key factors. One is the consistent failure to get the quarantine system right.
That’s the refusal to build proper dedicated quarantine facilities that can deal properly with an airborne virus, as well as all the issues with staffing, privatisation and unvaccinated staff. This then led to repeated outbreaks.
More importantly, that has come together with what’s really an offensive now by the rich and powerful in this country, which is spearheaded by the Liberal federal and NSW governments.
This involves not only attacking zero COVID, but also attacking the very idea of it. This is part of the way the pandemic has always played out in Australia, which is along class lines.
From the very beginning, and all the way through, we have seen a reticence by those in power to take the necessary measures to deal with this pandemic, because they will get in the way of their profits.
There has been fairly consistent hostility to lockdown measures. As one example, we saw this playout in NSW with the lockdown being implemented far too late and far too minimally.
There were lots of shops still open and many workplaces, which is where the virus is primarily spreading.
Now this has gone into another gear, where the offensive is to try and convince us all that we have to live with COVID, that is, learning to accept mass infection, mass death, mass suffering, just so they can reopen the economy prematurely.
That is why the campaign is necessary, because there is a real fight going on right now in Australia.
It is a crucial fight for the lives of thousands of working class people and the poor in particular, against a right-wing, ruling class offensive aimed at supporting profits over our health.
So, it would seem that Berejiklian and Morrison are on the same page with the anti-lockdown protesters now.
Exactly. And that has been the case for most of the pandemic, even though they’ve been forced to implement lockdown measures on multiple occasions.
As seen most clearly in NSW, and also with the federal government, it’s always been against their inclination.
They have always tried to resist and delay. But now they’re very clearly on the same page and telling us we have to accept mass infection from COVID-19.
What has stopped them letting it rip in the past – and to some extent today – is the fact that mass opinion is against them. Mass opinion does not want to accept the kind of mass death that we are seeing from this virus overseas.
It’s patently clear that there is an alternative to that, and we’ve been living that in Australia for the last 18 months.
What they’re trying to do now is bash down the idea that this alternative exists.
Morrison and Berejiklian are aiming to progressively open up once 70 and 80 percent adult vaccination rates are met. It appears that this will be done regardless of how many COVID-19 Delta variant cases are circulating in the community.
What is this likely to lead to? And who will be affected most by this change in course?
We know it is going to lead to terrifying rates of infection in the community. Even the Doherty Report states this. It’s an utterly flawed piece of government spin. All of its assumptions are wrong.
Doherty’s own modelling cuts off after 180 days, while case rates haven’t even peaked yet. It ignores long COVID. It ignores children. And it massively overstates the effectiveness of vaccines.
Even the Doherty report says that we will get up to 55,000 cases a day. But the reality will be much worse than that if things are allowed to let rip in the way the government wants to do at 70 or 80 percent adult vaccinations.
The reality of these rates is they’re actually closer to 50 and 60 percent vaccination of the overall population. And these are woefully low rates: millions and millions of people will still be unvaccinated.
What that will lead to is mass deaths, as well as huge stress on the hospital system, which we are already seeing in NSW.
This will mean not just deaths from COVID, but deaths from a whole series of non-COVID conditions, because people won’t be able to get a hospital bed or into an ICU ward or onto a ventilator, as staff and hospitals will be overrun by COVID patients.
Then there’s the issue of long COVID, which is affecting a high percentage of COVID cases around the world. They still know very little about it, but what it means is months and months – if not years – of ongoing health conditions, like breathing issues and fatigue.
In terms of who it’s going to impact, well, it’s going to disproportionately impact the working class, the poor, people with pre-existing medical conditions, and those conditions are already disproportionately affecting the poor.
We are seeing this with the NSW outbreak, as most cases are in western and southwestern Sydney, where the core of the working class is.
These people can least work from home. They do most of the dangerous work during the pandemic – that’s up close and personal blue collar and service industries.
Then we’re seeing it, tragically, with the outbreak in western NSW – in Wilcannia and Dubbo – where there are already obscene rates of infections amongst Aboriginal populations that have very low vaccination rates.
We’ve already seen the first death of an Aboriginal person in Dubbo and, tragically, probably many more to come.
This was entirely preventable. But this is the government’s plan: to see more and more of this across Australia.
You’ve also raised issue with the NSW plans for schools to open up and live with COVID. What are the current plans, and why are they flawed?
The government’s current plan is to start opening up schools on 25 October.
They have already tried to open up schools several times and been pushed back by the resistance of teachers, students and parents, who don’t want to send their kids to school, which are dangerous places for infection.
NSW Health has just released some statistics from the last week – just one week of COVID infections in NSW – and it shows over 2,000 COVID cases have occurred in under 19 year olds, and nearly 1,000 children up to 9 years old.
The first cohorts that the government is planning to send back are Year 12 students and kindergarten and Year 1.
These are some of the most highly infected people in NSW at the moment. There is no vaccine for under 12 year olds. Not many students from 12 to 16 are going to be vaccinated either.
But they’re saying they’re going to force kids and teachers back into schools, where there will be mass infections, as we’ve already seen around the world.
That kids can’t catch the virus or get sick has been a myth the government has tried to peddle all along, but it’s even more of a myth with the Delta strain. And it’s just not true. There have been many child deaths from the virus around the world, and many children getting long COVID.
Of course, once children catch the virus at school, they’re going to pass it on to their family members – whether vaccinated or not – and then they can get very sick and die from it.
It’s an appalling plan, which is set to be opposed by many teachers, parents and students. And we hope we can defeat the attempt to reopen schools again.
You’ve just cited experiences from overseas. There is evidence coming from other countries that suggests opening up at the percentage rates being spruiked is problematic.
The examples of the UK and Israel are being raised. What are the experiences over there telling us?
It’s incredible that Berejiklian points to these countries as success stories that we want to emulate.
Right now, in the UK, where they’ve opened up with those 70 and 80 percent vaccination rates, there are now 34,000 cases per day and rising.
There are 110 COVID deaths in the UK per day. There are thousands of cases of long COVID. The hospital system is at breaking point. There are kids getting infected. It is a horror story.
This is what the government is telling us we should actively and explicitly emulate. And in Israel, it’s a similar story with thousands of cases per day, and they’re talking about reintroducing restrictions, because it hasn’t worked.
So, what it tells us is that the vaccine is effective because it has lowered the death rate, but you’ve still got huge rates of infection going on in society.
It only takes quite a small percentage of people to get sick or to die of COVID for this to still be an obscene level of deaths and suffering.
What would you say to people in the community stating that the lockdowns are obviously not working as we’ve been under these restrictions for going on ten weeks now, and the COVID case numbers are continuing to increase?
Many people have called this a “mockdown”. And it’s true. If you look at the actual measures they’ve got in place, they may have been enough to deal with the Alpha strain last year, but clearly, they’re not enough for the Delta strain.
They need to be taking more severe measures. When I say more severe, this is in particular to businesses and workplaces, because that’s the core sites of the seeding of new infections. From there, people are taking the infection home and infecting their families, which is leading to deaths.
So, what needs to be done is to have a real focus, in particular in workplaces. That’s why we are calling for the shutting down of all nonessential businesses to keep those workers safe and for the government to pay people to stay at home.
That’s why we had a focus on Bunnings, it was a symbol, one example, of nonessential businesses that could still be shut.
We had a victory around Bunnings, where the government did fold to the demands of workers and the community to shut down these stores and force them into “click and collect”.
But instead of taking those measures more broadly, they’re doing the opposite. They’ve reopened the construction industry, which is a lot of nonessential work going on, with a lot of people spreading the virus around.
Then there’s the question of genuinely essential work because a lot of work is. Again, nothing is being done to make these workplaces safe. There’s no government regulation for proper health and safety measures around this virus.
It’s a total laissez faire attitude, where every boss who is primarily concerned with making profits being allowed to do whatever they want on their worksites.
There are no demands for filters in enclosed spaces. There is a demand around mask mandates but not to the right extent.
There are measures that could be implemented. The current lockdown has stopped the virus getting out of control. But it’s easy to see how more targeted measures could actually start getting the case numbers down.
Lockdowns do work. It is just they are not doing a proper lockdown.
And lastly, Josh, it seems that over the last week, the horse has bolted in terms of politicians, the media and a growing number of people in the community asserting that we have to open up with cases circulating as locking down to zero is no longer possible.
You’ve touched on this already, but is locking down to zero still possible? And what is the campaign calling for as an alternative to the current Liberal Nationals promoted path?
The rich and powerful want to launch an offensive. And this is one clearly backed by the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group and the Liberal Party.
Whenever they want to launch an offensive against the working class, they present an argument similar to that of Margaret Thatcher, outlining that there is no alternative, because they can’t really convince us that masses of people dying for the economy is a good thing.
So, instead they try and hammer us with the argument that nothing else is possible.
While there is a lockdown already, there are many other measures that they could put in place now to get the effective reproduction rate of the virus to below 1, and this would start to see numbers going down.
At the moment, it is sitting at 1.2, so it wouldn’t take a total change, just more measures to start seeing the numbers go down.
But they’re refusing to do this, because instead of that they want to convince us all that we have to open up and learn to live with this virus.
It includes hard lockdown measures. It also includes much more economic support, which I haven’t had a lot of time to talk about. But financial support is clearly another key measure that the government is failing on.
Paying people more money and more generous welfare measures to stay at home would also help both to alleviate the stressors on the working class, and it would also be a health measure to enable people to stay at home more easily.
We could look around the world to where outbreaks of this virus have been defeated. That has been true in Australia on multiple occasions.
China, which is the world’s largest country and is much poorer per capita, has yet again defeated outbreaks of Delta in its country. There have been other nations that have defeated outbreaks, like Taiwan.
It’s certainly not the case that this virus cannot be brought under control. It can. And it’s very important that we keep fighting for that zero COVID alternative. At least in the short term in Australia.
Right now, while vaccination rates are so low, we absolutely need to fight to zero COVID, as anything else is really accepting obscene levels of death.
There is an alternative to COVID. It is COVID zero. It is possible. The only people trying to say it’s not are the rich and powerful, who want to make money at the expense of our health.