“If zero COVID-19 is this endgame, then international travel is years away. 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.”
That’s the opinion of Australian epidemiologists Nathan Grills and Tony Blakely, addressing their own country’s COVID-19 strategy.
It comes as Canada’s mandatory hotel quarantine requirement kicks in, which takes a page out of Australia’s pandemic playbook.
Since very early in the coronavirus pandemic, Australia set out to virtually eliminate the novel coronavirus from its shores, taking one of the most draconian approaches to travel restrictions in the world. According to a analysis, the country effectively closed its borders, banned non-essential entry and mandated strict quarantines and testing for anyone allowed to enter. Returning Australian nationals were required to pay for two-week stays in quarantine hotels monitored by police. (Sound familiar?)
The strategy worked, and for many observers, offered valuable insights for decision makers elsewhere in the world. In a DEC 2020 report, McKinsey noted that “Australia has experienced lower infection and death rates than many comparable OECD countries… Its economic downturn during the pandemic has also been less pronounced than in many comparable economies, and it is now moving into a ‘COVID normal’ phase of recovery.”
Canada’s anti-COVID travel restrictions have gone in the opposite trajectory from Australia’s early and complete lock down, with Canadian regulations getting stricter only as the pandemic has gone one. Canada’s restrictions have been criticized both as being an overreach that could violate Canadians’ Charter rights, and, in light of Australian success, as being “too little, too late.”
Canada finds itself in a position of new and increased restrictions even as the Australian experts make the point that striving for a complete elimination of the virus is not a sustainable approach, especially when it comes to travel.
In an op-ed in the Australian Financial Review, the Australian scientists suggest Australia’s coronavirus strategy needs to shift from zero-tolerance to a “harm minimization approach” if the country wants to reopen its borders any time soon.
Grills and Blakely argue that the return of tourism will depend on the “level of residual risk we accept from the virus” that will come with reopening borders. They say health experts, including themselves, are working to model how much widespread vaccination the country would need to achieve to responsibly open its borders. Initial findings, they say, suggest that vaccinating 70 per cent of adults could be the threshold for containing sporadic outbreaks.
“We need to balance use of the most effective vaccines with ‘getting on with it,’” Grills and Blakely wrote. The experts say public officials will also need to take into consideration vaccine efficacy and behavioural factors like public confidence in getting the vaccine widely administered and reopening borders.