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30,000 deaths in 30 days - the risk we run by opening up ahead of vaccines

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Reopening Australia before four in every five Australians are vaccinated risks the rampant spread of coronavirus and hospitals being overwhelmed, the Grattan Institute says.

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The think tank released modelling on Thursday suggesting allowing COVID-19 to spread with half the population vaccinated would lead to 31,440 deaths within 300 days.

The need for intensive care beds would also peak at 60,000.

“Abandoning our Zero COVID strategy before 80 per cent of Australians are vaccinated would risk a rapid surge in COVID cases that overwhelms our hospitals and imposes a high death toll,” the Race to 80 report says.

The situation remained dire even with 75 per cent of the population vaccinated.

The warning came as National Cabinet meets to start charting a course to fully reopening the nation based on new coronavirus vaccination rate modelling.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will on Friday chair a national cabinet meeting of state premiers and territory chief ministers.

Leaders will be presented with Doherty Institute modelling which calculates immunisation coverage needed to avoid lockdowns and restart international travel.

Morrison has tempered expectations of a concrete outcome like setting a “freedom day” similar to the United Kingdom’s widespread dropping of restrictions.

“You don’t just pick a day and, you know, get some fireworks,” he told 3AW.

“That’s not science. It’s not medicine. It’s not policy.”

The prime minister said the infectious disease modelling would be considered alongside Treasury’s economic advice to inform the path out of restrictions.

“Now, will we get there in one meeting? No, I don’t think we will. If we do, great,” he said.

“But if we don’t get there in one meeting, we’ll keep meeting until we work out what those rates are.”

The Grattan research found that a Delta variant with a reproduction number of 6 (R6) would likely cause 320 deaths if all restrictions were dropped. The nation’s hospitals would also be treating up to 160 ICU patients a day.

Those numbers rose to 7590 deaths and 8110 ICU admissions under a more virulent strain (R7).

About 14 per cent of Australia is fully vaccinated, with another 17 per cent partly vaccinated. About 17 million people are unvaccinated.

More than 200,000 shots were given on Wednesday, a new record.

The report says a vaccination rate of 80 per cent – plus 95 per cent coverage in over-70s and high-risk individuals – equals few deaths and severe illnesses.

That rate could be achieved by year-end, if a vaccine becomes available in coming months for children aged under 12.

Delays on that front could hinder any reopening until March, as the country waits for more adults to get the jab.

Queensland Health at one point delivered 122,000 daily doses but that rates has since fallen to under 35,000 as the department awaits more Pfizer deliveries.

“We’ve had to drop that right down because we just don’t have the vaccine supply,” D’Ath told a budget estimates committee hearing today.

Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young, who has previously urged young Queenslanders to wait for Pfizer, had earlier reiterated that people aged 60 and over should go to a GP or Commonwealth clinic because “we have plenty of AstraZeneca vaccine available”.

D’Ath told the committee that vaccinations were “the key” to unlocking Queensland and emerging from the pandemic safely. She said testing overseas travellers before they fly into Australia “means very little when it gets to our end” and hotel quarantine.

“They’re testing positive on day zero and day one, which means they already had it, more than likely, when they got on the plane,” D’Ath said.

“We’ve even heard about blackmarket testing results so (testing) is one measure but it will not be ever the key factor in protecting us.”

Currently, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has only approved the Pfizer vaccine for use in children aged 12 to 18. The AstraZeneca jab is approved for all adults.

The Grattan report’s authors recommend national cabinet commit to the “80 per cent by December 31” target.

They also called on governments to immediately accelerate the vaccine rollout by turning workplaces, schools and community centres into makeshift vaccine hubs ahead of large Pfizer shipments in October.

Once supply issues were overcome, government should introduce a weekly $10 million VaxLotto, starting on Melbourne Cup Day (November 2), giving every vaccinated Australian and those with medical exemptions an entry.

“Australians shouldn’t and won’t accept high death tolls or indefinite restrictions,” report co-author Brendan Coates said.

“Racing to 80 per cent and then pushing on to 85 per cent is Australia’s ticket to opening up. Failure is not an option.”

Morrison remains confident a vaccination rate will be determined at some stage.

“There’ll be a straight answer on that. But I won’t be making it up, I won’t be pulling it out of the air.”

About 17.7 per cent of people aged 16 and over have received both doses of a coronavirus vaccine with a record 201,470 shots administered in the past 24 hours.

Labor and key crossbench senator Rex Patrick is demanding the institute’s work be fully released.

Senator Patrick considers it essential to improving public confidence in governments’ decisions around releasing restrictions.

“There is no justification for withholding the Doherty Institute’s modelling in advance of government decisions on future pandemic strategy,” Senator Patrick said.

Sydney’s coronavirus crisis continues to deepen with 239 new local cases recorded on Thursday.

The city and surrounding regional areas are facing a lengthy lockdown with heavy restrictions set to be extended until at least the end of next month.

National cabinet will also receive an update on virus data, vaccine rollout and the code for truckies to move around the country.

Health Minister Greg Hunt praised the efforts of doctors, nurses and the public in reaching the 200,000 daily dose milestone.

“This is the first time we’ve done it, but I’m absolutely certain that it won’t be the last,” he told reporters in Melbourne.

A Delta variant with a reproduction number of 6 (R6) would likely cause 320 deaths if all restrictions were dropped. The nation’s hospitals would also be treating up to 160 ICU patients a day.

Those numbers rose to 7590 deaths and 8110 ICU admissions under a more virulent strain (R7).

About 14 per cent of Australia is fully vaccinated, with another 17 per cent partly vaccinated. About 17 million people are unvaccinated.

More than 200,000 shots were given on Wednesday, a new record.

The report says a vaccination rate of 80 per cent – plus 95 per cent coverage in over-70s and high-risk individuals – equals few deaths and severe illnesses.

That rate could be achieved by year-end, if a vaccine becomes available in coming months for children aged under 12.

Delays on that front could hinder any reopening until March, as the country waits for more adults to get the jab.

Currently, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has only approved the Pfizer vaccine for use in children aged 12 to 18. The AstraZeneca jab is approved for all adults.

The Grattan report’s authors recommend national cabinet commit to the “80 per cent by December 31” target.

They also called on governments to immediately accelerate the vaccine rollout by turning workplaces, schools and community centres into makeshift vaccine hubs ahead of large Pfizer shipments in October.

Once supply issues were overcome, government should introduce a weekly $10 million VaxLotto, starting on Melbourne Cup Day (November 2), giving every vaccinated Australian and those with medical exemptions an entry.

“Australians shouldn’t and won’t accept high death tolls or indefinite restrictions,” report co-author Brendan Coates said.

“Racing to 80 per cent and then pushing on to 85 per cent is Australia’s ticket to opening up. Failure is not an option.”

-With Sean Parnell

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