Australia's coronavirus vaccine program is officially underway – but questions remain about the freedoms that will eventually follow.
For many Australians, international travel is high on their agenda when widespread vaccination paves the way for the opening of borders. However, that could still be a long time off, according to some public health experts.
Nathan Grills, a professor and public health physician at the University of Melbourne, and Tony Blakely, a Professor of Epidemiology at the university's School of Population and Global Health, say Australians could be waiting some time before embarking on any carefree jet-setting.
Writing in the Australian Financial Review, they argued Australian state and federal governments will need to change tack and be more accepting of living with some level of community spread of Covid-19.
To date, all states and territories outside of NSW have been quick to close borders and lockdown at the first sign of a growing cluster. The result has been that all states, including NSW, have successfully pursued an elimination strategy.
But that will have to change if we want to allow two-way overseas travel, Grills and Blakely wrote.
"The vaccine could help achieve eradication, but zero Covid-19 remains a pipe dream in the medium term. It’s dependent on numerous external variables, mostly outside our control, including viral mutation and co-operation between 195 countries.
"If zero Covid-19 is this endgame, then international travel is years away."
Calls for a move to 'safe' suppression
Instead, they argue, Australia needs to switch to a harm minimisation approach with the vaccine ushering in more tolerable spread.
"The second endgame, and the implicit aim of our mass vaccination program, is widespread immunity where the impact of incursions and outbreaks is minimal and more easily stamped out. A damaging third wave is avoided.
"The vaccine allows us to shift the endpoint from strict elimination back towards 'safe' suppression. And that will allow opening up domestically, and internationally."
A survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics released on Friday showed 73 per cent of those surveyed said they would be happy to take a coronavirus vaccine if it was recommended to them.
If that number bears out, researchers say early modelling indicates such a level of vaccine coverage would enable health authorities to more easily manage outbreaks without the need for overly damaging restrictions.
"Initial calculations show 70 per cent adult coverage would see sporadic outbreaks that do not take hold – and are much easier to manage," they wrote in the AFR.
The federal government controls the national borders but states – particularly Queensland and West Australia – have shown a strong willingness to lockdown their borders. As vaccine uptake reaches critical mass later this year, public health experts are calling for a national consensus to emerge among politicians to allow for a consistent approach that sees local – and possibly even international – borders stay open.
Currently, the Australian Government's advice for international travellers remains unchanged regardless of their vaccination status.
'We can start thinking about overseas travel'
After the first jabs were delivered on Sunday, NSW commenced its vaccine rollout proper on Monday, with plans for the jab to be offered to everyone in the state by the end of October.
The NSW government plans to vaccinate 35,000 frontline workers in the next three weeks, including those working in health and quarantine hotels, with the public then to be advised who is next in line.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the vaccine represented a new phase in fighting the pandemic, and said restrictions could ease when enough people took up the vaccine.
"It does mean we can start thinking about overseas travel, we can start thinking about easing of restrictions," she told reporters.
"It definitely means there's light at the end of the tunnel, and it definitely means I'm hoping we've come through the worst part of the pandemic."
Vaccines were also administered in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia on Monday while the federal government is starting to roll out jabs at aged care facilities across the nation.
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