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The Way Forward

I sit here in my Melbourne apartment reflecting on the current environment we are living through.  Some of us are experiencing life relatively normally while many of us are confined to our homes and dealing with everything that comes with being locked in a household bubble and unable to do many of the things we take for granted.

And I can’t help but reflect on three truths that have come to the fore as we have attempted to navigate COVID as a nation over the past 18 months.

1. Our political leaders are hamstrung by the need to balance competing priorities

within their parties and the electorate.  Our response to COVID needs to be clear, consistent and balanced but this is proving to be a complex and difficult task given the extent to which our leaders are influenced by public opinion, media commentary, factions and active minorities.

2. Our federated model of government limits our ability to truly act as a single nation. As someone that has travelled around Australia for work for decades, I have always been aware of parochial sentiments across our country, but COVID has shone a light on how deeply tribal and entrenched our state and territory mindset is.

3. ‘Fortress Australia’ is a much better descriptor for our behaviour than ‘Team Australia’.  COVID has exposed how insular and inward looking we really are as a nation and we appear to have quickly forgotten the importance of social and economic connection with the rest of the world.
So what can we do about this?  We have to try and find solutions that are politically smart, can be implemented consistently across the country, and that enable us to meaningfully connect with the rest of the world as soon as possible.  And, they should ideally be based on data and evidence.

Being a bit of a nerd, I read the full Doherty Institute modelling report during the week and it was thought provoking.  My main takeaway is that this is a pure mathematical game now and we need to focus on getting 80%+ of our 16 and above population vaccinated as quickly as possible if we are to sustainably open up our country in a way that supports co-existence with the COVID virus. 

Today just over one third of our 16 and above population is vaccinated which means we are off to a decent start but still have a long way still to go.  To get to the 80% threshold there are three things we need to get right.

1. Supply – one fact that has been somewhat lost recently amongst recent political announcements and messaging is that we do not yet have anywhere near sufficient supplies of mRNA vaccines to achieve our 80%+ target.  We do have plenty of Astra Zeneca vaccines – which my family have accessed to get vaccinated – but some premature and unfortunate commentary has made this a more difficult sell than it should have been.  Given this, we urgently need clarity regarding when significant quantities of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will become available for the general population, together with an effective, coordinated and easily accessible national vaccine distribution strategy.

2. Incentives – most Australians are planning to be vaccinated, but 80% is going to be a very tough benchmark to hit without additional focus and strategies.  Globally one of the most successful and logical approaches we should learn from and adopt is the provision of specific incentives to reward and encourage people to get vaccinated.  The incentives that have had the most impact are not financial inducements - they relate to greater ‘freedoms’ for those that are vaccinated.

Domestically this could be the freedom to travel interstate, to attend public events, and to visit entertainment venues.  Incentives should also be used to support the increasingly urgent need to re-open our international borders to skilled migrants, students and tourists, and to facilitate much needed family reunifications.  By the end of the year, we should set a goal that fully vaccinated individuals are be able to travel to and from authorised countries subject to practical measures like a short period of home quarantine and a negative COVID test.

3. Communication – our communication strategy to date has been strangely tentative and unmemorable.  If we are to reach our targets, particularly with our most needy and hesitant cohorts, we need to communicate in a much more prolific, engaging and focused way.  We should actively leverage role models and icons that connect with our target audiences.  Some campaigns utilising good old-fashioned Aussie humour and cheekiness wouldn’t hurt either.

There are many competing views and messages from our elected and health leaders at the moment, but everyone agrees on one thing – the more vaccinations, the better.  This gives us a clear frame and basis for moving forward.  What we need now is political will, vaccine supply and the right incentives and messaging to achieve our 80%+ goal. 

It’s time to bring ‘Team Australia’ to life and get this country moving again.