As Britain’s healthcare system gasped for air under a Covid-19 surge in mid-January, Australians were hitting the beach.
The height of summer drew people to Bondi’s white-sand crescent in droves, with an invasion of bluebottle jellyfish deemed to be a bigger threat than the pandemic.
Many credited the freedom to Australia’s zero-Covid strategy under which Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been striving for total domestic eradication of the virus using quarantines, snap lockdowns and a closed border.
To much of the world, the strategy appeared to be working. After spikes in March and July 2020, the case curve in Australia had almost entirely flattened with just dozens of infections a day.
Today, however, zero-Covid has backfired. As major economies reopen, Sydney has been plunged into its strictest lockdown since the start of the pandemic, bleeding billions of dollars a week as tourism, hospitality and construction remain closed.
The total number of people having to stay at home has reached 13 million, or around half of Australia’s population.
Morrison is now coming under increasing pressure to end zero-Covid to save both the A$2 trillion economy and weary Australians abroad who are unable to return home.
“The government drank their own Kool-Aid and thought that they had the answers, when other comparable countries spread the risks by backing many options,” says Bill Bowtell, an adjunct professor in infection and immunity at the University of New South Wales.
Australia’s economy contracted by 7pc during the second quarter of 2020 as a result of lockdowns – a record fall, albeit moderate by international standards. It has since recovered to surpass pre-pandemic heights, but the return to lockdowns is likely to have smothered growth.
Some now anticipate the country’s economy will contract again in the coming months with output dropping for the second time during the pandemic after decades of largely unbroken growth.
According to Reuters, the Sydney lockdown could cost the broader economy around A$1bn. That would imply an economic hit of around A$7bn in the third quarter from potentially seven weeks of lockdown.
Part of the issue is its slow vaccine roll out. As countries scrambled to secure a stockpile of shots last year, Canberra chose not to race, gambling on just AstraZeneca and a vaccine then under development at the University of Queensland.
The latter proved a flop, while the former is still fighting off reputational damage after being found to cause blood clots in an extreme minority of cases. As a result, supply shortages have been severe.
Initial vaccination efforts were botched. Delivery was patchy and often outsourced to the private sector via flawed contracts, resulting in situations where, for example, care home residents received vaccines but staff did not.
“They made mistakes to begin with,” says Professor Robert Booy, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Sydney. “They were slow, and they were not complete.”
“It was just a real shambolic programme overall,” adds Stephen Duckett, health programme director at the Grattan Institute think-tank, and former secretary of the Australian Health Department.
That has left the country far behind peers in inoculation rates. Only a third of its population has been vaccinated with around one in eight being doubled-jabbed – the lowest rate among OECD nations.
Early success in suppressing cases helped breed a reticence towards vaccines. A strong anti-vaxx movement has also emerged. At the weekend, thousands of people marched in an anti-lockdown protest which turned violent in central Sydney, an event that state chief health officer Kerry Chant called “distressing”.
Adding to the problems, health minister Greg Hunt was forced to row back comments in May after suggesting people who are uncertain about AstraZeneca could wait for Pfizer to become available later this year.
“Everyone’s talking about vaccine hesitancy, but really people were vaccine choosy,” says Professor Nancy Baxter, head of the School of Population and Global Health at Melbourne University. “Obviously, that left us extremely vulnerable – and here we are.”
Several weeks of lockdowns in its most populous city have done little to slow the rise in cases. The country now faces the possibility that its gamble has gone awry, and it must face the fearsome Delta variant with much of its population exposed.
Australia will have to either double down on its efforts to contain the virus, or risk its hospitals – and economy – being battered, and the grim prospect of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
“It’s a race,” says Duckett. “Unfortunately, the vaccinations will be too late.”
Vaccination shortcomings make containment a high-risk strategy. Every case is made more dangerous by the lack of vaccination and the variant: more likely to spread, more likely to lead to hospitalisation, more likely to cause death. “Delta is a new beast,” says Booy. “it’s getting to the point where lockdowns find it very difficult to work. They still can work, but it’s a real, real challenge.”
“I think we have a more formidable foe, than at the beginning of the pandemic, and we’re going into it with very few people fully vaccinated,” says Baxter.
As a result, when outbreaks do occur, they will necessitate more extreme responses. “The low vaccination rate has forced state governments’ hand,” says Sean Langcake from BIS Oxford Economics.
In theory, an end is in sight. By the end of the year, about 80pc of Australia’s adult population should have been vaccinated, with an expected surge in vaccine availability from the start of autumn.
But the country faces the prospect of a long, brutal haul to reach that point with numerous plunges back into restricted living likely along the way. In the meantime, the economy faces damage. What Australia has learned is that a zero-Covid strategy doesn’t work unless the whole world takes part.
There’s little scope to change course now for Morrison’s government, which must roll out vaccines as quickly as possible while hoping containment measures hold.
“No government can survive if it doesn’t produce vaccines for its home country,” says Booy. “That’s just a given. It’s not cynical – it’s just plain politics.”
Facing little option but to wait and see what happens, Morrison’s government has begun to look for ways to shift the blame – with the scientists who helped guide the zero Covid strategy coming under increasing criticism from officials.
“They’re trying to create a narrative,” says Baxter. “I don’t think it’s going to work for them because this is clearly their fault.”