Setting Australia’s COVID immunisation target, our next big challenge

Jeremy Lasek

The PHAA’s National Immunisation Conference wrapped up last night with perhaps the most-timely presentation imaginable, when University of Melbourne epidemiologist, Professor Tony Blakely, spoke to the issue on everyone’s lips: ‘when will Australia get back to normal?’

Timely, because that was also one of the hot agenda items at this morning’s meeting of National Cabinet.

When leaving The Lodge heading to the meeting after his two weeks in isolation, PM Scott Morrison said ‘we need to change gears for the road ahead’ and part of that shifting of gears was to discuss setting vaccination targets which, once reached, would mean lockdowns and travel restrictions would no longer be required in Australia, and international travel could resume again.

Modelling on what percentage would need to be vaccinated to manage the Alpha variant of COVID-19 has already been done and work is now well underway on similar modelling for the Delta variant.

While it hasn’t surfaced as a major issue to date, it seems only a matter of time, as more Australians roll up their sleeves, that there will be growing disquiet from fully vaccinated Aussies, that they’re subject to the same travel and other COVID-19 restrictions as everyone else.

As we’ve seen for months now, finding that ‘sweet spot’ and a vaccination target that all states and territories can agree to will be no mean feat.

As Professor Blakely told our conference this week, keeping our borders closed to the world indefinitely is not feasible and we need to start planning and assessing our options and communicating to the broader public as a priority.

To date, and particularly during this difficult past week, our singular focus has been on the number of new COVID cases being reported across the nation. In the weeks and months ahead – as we strive for our ‘new normal’ – expect a shift when the most important stats in our lives will be our vaccination numbers. For the record, more than six million Australians have now had their first dose (close to 25%) and we’ve now passed 1.5 million (6%) fully vaccinated.

Speaking this afternoon following National Cabinet, the PM spoke excitedly about the most recent vaccinations numbers: nearly 8 million doses in total, 1 million doses in the past eight days and about 3.5 million in the past month. He strongly hinted that at the current rate of vaccination, Australia will be in a position to achieve its targets by the end of the year.

Professor Blakely said Australia’s next big goal is to set its sights on a herd immunity threshold which he stressed wasn’t the same as vaccination coverage. Herd immunity, he said, was the rate of vaccination needed which would prevent the virus from spreading.

To be frank, this is likely to be the most important – and no doubt one of the most hotly debated – scientific modelling processes in our nation’s history, based simply on how difficult it’s been to find a common ground for the trigger points for lockdowns, border closures and the like.

In his conference presentation, Professor Blakely made it clear that vaccination alone won’t get Australia to its herd immunity threshold, and the chances of us getting even close to 100% vaccination is an impossible dream.

‘Vaccination is just one component of a COVID-19 policy response. We will need a combination of ongoing physical distancing and restrictions, mask wearing, contact tracing and vaccination that will make us resilient when we reopen the borders,’ Professor Blakely said.

Different variants of the virus will also require different vaccination targets, but his modelling shows 80% as the magic number.

The Prime Minister today, in announcing a four-phase approach to tackling COVID going forward, correctly said a vaccination target which would enable Australia return to normal, would be made based on the best scientific modelling and medical advice, and not as a political decision.

Prime Minister Morrison said the long-term goal would be to manage COVID-19 as we do other illnesses, such as the flu; and where there are no lockdowns.

The PM’s message to the nation today was clear: ‘Australia gets vaccinated and Australia gets to live differently.’

Profound words indeed, in a week where public health officials came together (virtually) in their hundreds to discuss this very subject at the PHAA’s National Immunisation Conference.


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