Australia’s Covid-Zero policy is under renewed pressure after a second state indicated it was abandoning attempts to eliminate the highly-contagious delta variant.
Melbourne set a 70% first-dose vaccination rate target to begin easing its Covid-related restrictions — some of the toughest in the world — on Wednesday, as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, previously a strong proponent of Covid-Zero, laid out a roadmap to reopening the state.
Regional areas of Victoria could exit lockdown as early as next week, he added. Still, Andrews didn’t specify a date when stay-at-home orders would be removed for metropolitan Melbourne.
The Covid-Zero strategy has seen Australia rely on closed international borders, rigorous testing and lockdowns to eliminate community transmission, earning it the nickname “Fortress Australia” and raising questions about how long it could afford to remain isolated not just from the world but across state borders. Victoria joins neighboring New South Wales in shifting toward a reopening that will see more than half the nation’s population learn to live with the virus, rather than seek to eliminate it.
The 70% threshold will allow rules limiting residents to an area within five kilometers of their homes to extend to 10, and see three hours of daily outdoor exercise permitted instead of the current limit of two, Andrews said. Playgrounds will reopen late Thursday, he said.
He said the state — which recorded two deaths and 120 new virus infections overnight — could reach the inoculation target around September 23. Some 35% of Victorians over age 16 are fully vaccinated, and 56% have had their first dose.
“I much prefer to be here announce that we’re opening up,” Andrews said. Regarding a full lifting of the lockdown, he added that there would “be a time for that, but it simply can’t be before” at least 70% of people are fully vaccinated.
Australia has imposed restrictions ranging from stay-at-home orders to the closure of venues on its residents more frequently than any other country outside of China during the pandemic, according to Bloomberg analysis of Oxford University’s Stringency Index, which assesses how many times nations see significant upward changes in the severity of their lockdowns.
Victoria’s announcement was criticized by peak employer lobbyist Ai Group, which contrasted Andrews’ incremental easing with the bid outlined by New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian earlier Wednesday seeking to reopen Sydney’s international border by November.
“Our two largest states need to get on the same page as soon as possible and this will be best achieved by Victoria raising its aspirations for Covid freedom,” Ai Group’s chief executive, Innes Willox, said in an emailed statement. “If the aim is to shutter many more businesses in the state, Victoria is moving in the right direction.”
Roughly half of Australia’s population remains under stay-at-home orders. Melbourne has seen six lockdowns numbering a total of 213 days since the pandemic began, while Sydney has been under similar restrictions for more than two months and residents of Canberra, the national capital, are following such measures through September 17.
The outbreak started in Sydney in mid-June, when an unvaccinated chauffeur became infected while transporting international flight crew.
Australia’s sluggish vaccine rollout, one of the slowest in the developed world, has picked up speed since the outbreak. But its slowness has forced health authorities to continue to resort to lockdowns until immunization rates catch up, even as nations like the U.S. and U.K. return to relative normality.
New South Wales recorded four deaths and 1,116 new infections on Wednesday as authorities focus on inoculations as a pathway to removing restrictions. More than 22,500 people have been infected in the state, mostly in Sydney, since the outbreak started.
“We are in for a difficult time, a challenging time over these coming weeks,” Andrews said. “What we must do is suppress case numbers sufficient to buy us time, to buy us time to get people vaccinated.”