by Richard Carr
Without wishing to join the legions of armchair epidemiologists, I do have a perspective on how matters have been handled in the Antipodes - as a frequent visitor to Australia, with more cousins there than in the UK, and a house in New Zealand. In the UK, where I spend the bulk of the year, the swift deployment of vaccines enables us to contemplate a return to a more normal life by the summer, including being able to travel abroad again. The British experience of the virus over the last year contrasts markedly with that of Australians and New Zealanders, whose governments reacted swiftly to the pandemic last March by sealing their borders and imposing a rigorous regime of managed quarantine for the few nationals and residents allowed back in. In the UK managed quarantine has only been introduced recently and only for travellers from some countries.
These measures in the Antipodes have largely kept at bay the pestilence afflicting the rest of the globe. Their geographic isolation made it easier to do so and has also helped keep death rates very low. Whilst New Zealand had a tough lock-down initially and has experienced very few cases since, allowing life to continue more or less normally, Australia has had more mixed success in containing the virus. There have been periodic outbreaks in some states, necessitating the closure of state borders and subsequent lock-downs, some quite lengthy, e.g. in Victoria. With the borders in both countries closed, returning Aussie and NZ nationals and residents have had to compete for the limited number of quarantine hotel rooms available for the mandatory 14-day isolation. There are still currently tens of thousands of Aussies and NZ nationals and residents living abroad who have been unable to return to their home country over the past year.
Newspapers and television recently showed large crowds attending the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne and the Americas Cup sailing in Auckland, with no social distancing. For those of us in wintry lock-down Europe we could only look at these scenes with envy. As things stand, we will start to get back to life like that from late June in the UK. We hope.
The Antipodean elimination strategy appears to have been very successful in the short term. Their populations have been able to live life more or less normally in both countries after lock-downs and contact-tracing reduced infections to almost zero. This strategy was possible in two island countries largely on the periphery of the world. In the UK, it would have had much less chance of success because of factors such as cross-border truck movement for essential food supplies and London being a global hub. In continental Europe, even more so with its land borders and freedom of movement within the EU.
The decisions taken by the Antipodean governments took them down a path of no return (once you go for elimination it’s difficult to modulate that choice without conceding defeat). Going the other way and a transition back to reopening the borders may be difficult. A recent poll showed that a significant majority of Australians think the government should keep the border closed until “after the pandemic is under control globally”. All adult Aussies can expect to be offered a vaccination by October, but it could be a while (late 2023 according to The Economist) before all other countries have completed their programmes.
There has been an on-off travel corridor between New Zealand and New South Wales and Victoria, and the Aussie and NZ governments are contemplating an extension to the Pacific Islands. However, problems may arise as constituent countries may decide they wish to open up to other countries at different speeds. And then there is the issue of what happens if a virus gets into one country and starts to circulate.
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, has the challenge of getting New Zealanders used to what the Covid future looks like. The same applies in Australia with the Scott Morrison government. As The Economist pointed out recently, expecting vaccines to see off Covid-19 is mistaken. Instead, the disease will probably circulate for years and is likely to become endemic. It seems we are all going to have to live with it for some considerable time. Getting most people in NZ to understand that, and living with Covid post-vaccination will be tough, particularly as they have become used to having zero Covid in the community. Ardern has slowly started signalling this, and recently compared the future to the way we live with flu, with an annual season accompanied by vaccinations. “It does mean that from time to time people will still have Covid,” she said.
She did not mention Covid deaths, but each year around 500 Kiwis die of causes related to the flu. Getting New Zealanders to accept anything close to that number of Covid deaths might be difficult after their experience of the last year where life has been normal, albeit with the borders closed. For the UK and many other countries which have experienced high numbers of Covid deaths, the much lower toll in future compared to the past year, is likely to be less of an issue, tragic though they are for the families of those who die. In the UK, the number of ‘excess winter deaths’, many of which are flu-related, are in the tens of thousands annually. To take one recent year as an example, excess winter deaths totalled 50,100 in 2017/18.
What will happen after NZ and Australia have jabbed most of their populations and opened their borders? Perhaps the way Australia has managed matters provides the answer. There the localised infection outbreaks have meant that contact-tracing systems have become very effective, with people becoming used to using QR codes wherever they go. There is a degree of confidence that the government now has the tools to isolate hotspots very quickly, particularly in New South Wales where lock-downs have largely been avoided. Victoria though, had a 5-day snap lock-down as recently as mid-February. An Australian friend tells me “The atmosphere in NSW is a bit different to the rest of the country where fear is still the first reaction to a new case of Covid”.
Neither country can remain sealed off forever. Nor, like in the UK, can government support for businesses and jobs continue indefinitely. For New Zealand, international tourism is an important contributor to the economy. Prior to the pandemic, tourism accounted directly and indirectly for 9.3% of GDP and was responsible for 13.6% of the total number of people employed in the country. Tourism post-pandemic may not look the same; recent years have seen a sharp and unsustainable rise in tourist numbers. The pandemic has brought an opportunity for a possible reset to attract higher value tourists, with fewer twenty-somethings roaming the country in clapped-out vans, doing what Kiwis call “freedom camping” – overnighting where they please - with little benefit to the local communities they stay in. This may not be a bad thing, but NZ still needs lots of tourist jobs, many of which are currently furloughed or lost.
Border reopening looks however to be some time off as the first vaccines have only just started to be deployed in NZ and Australia, putting them way behind countries like the UK. Their respective national carriers have said that international flights are only likely to resume in 2022, with the exception of some trans-Tasman corridor travel before then.
Reluctance to receive vaccines also appears to be an issue. A December poll in NZ showed 25% of people would not wish to have a shot and there have been anti-vaxxer marches in Australia. A recent Imperial College London study of global attitudes towards Covid-19 vaccines showed that vaccine acceptance in 4 out of 15 rich countries fell between November and January. The countries were Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, all with impressive records in handling the pandemic. So there appears to be some evidence of risk aversion in countries least affected by the pandemic and where population immunity has not built up.
For the Antipodeans, there are some clear downsides to the borders reopening and public acceptance required before it happens. How soon will it be safe to do so? Will there have to be an agreed level of immunity? A few have begun to ask themselves: “Have we become the victims of our own success?”