The Australian Prime Minister's plan to reopen the country at a 70-80 per cent vaccination rate and treat the Delta variant "like the flu" has been slammed as dangerous and reckless by some of the nation's top health and economic researchers.
According to modelling from the Australian National University, if Scott Morrison's current coronavirus plan proceeds, tens of thousands Australians will likely die and hundreds of thousands will likely develop cases of long Covid.
"We found substantial morbidity and mortality is likely to occur if the Australian government sticks to the national plan," ANU economics professor and study co-author Professor Quentin Grafton said.
If Australia reopens with 70 per cent of Australians aged over 16 fully vaccinated, there could eventually be 6.9 million cases of Covid-19, 154,000 hospitalisations, and 29,000 fatalities, Grafton said.
"We simply can't afford to do that, both in terms of lives and long-term illness from Covid."
And even if the PM waits until 80 per cent of the adult population are vaccinated to open up, thousands of lives will still be destroyed, according to the modelling.
"Assuming 80 per cent vaccination coverage for only those over 16, as per the national plan, there could be approximately 25,000 fatalities and some 270,000 cases of long Covid," Grafton said.
"The consequences of prematurely and fully relaxing public health measures to suppress Covid-19, even after vaccinating 80 per cent of adults, would likely be irreversible, and unacceptable to many Australians," study co-author and University of Western Australia senior research officer Dr Zoë Hyde echoed.
"It's simply too dangerous to treat Covid-19 like the flu."
But Morrison has stayed firm in his insistence that lockdowns will become "a thing of the past" once 80 per cent of the adult population has been vaccinated.
"Once you get to 80 per cent vaccination, it is against the country's interests not to open up," Morrison told the ABC last Monday.
But to prevent mass deaths and hospitalisations, the ANU-led modelling outlines that a vaccination rate of at least 90 per cent, which includes children under 16, is needed.
"If children are also fully vaccinated, national fatalities – for all age groups – would be reduced to 19,000 with 80 per cent adult vaccination coverage. This would fall to 10,000 at a 90 per cent adult vaccination coverage," Grafton said.
"Children also directly benefit from vaccination. If we could achieve 75 cent vaccination coverage among children and adolescents, we could prevent 12,000 hospitalisations in these age groups."
To give Australians a decent chance in a country without lockdowns or other restrictions, the researchers argue that four key steps must be achieved first:
Vaccinating both children and adolescents; reaching 95 per cent full vaccination among people 60 and older as well as other vulnerable groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; giving an mRNA booster shot to all Australians vaccinated with AstraZeneca, as well as a booster shot to those vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine, when appropriate; reaching more than 90 per cent vaccination coverage among all Australians.
Study co-author and University of Melbourne environmental economics professor Tom Kompas warned his research had used the lower estimates of the severity of the Delta variant, meaning the real-life outcomes would likely be even worse than the modelling predicted.
"Our projections likely represent a lower estimate of the cumulative public health outcomes of fully relaxing public health measures at Phase D of the national plan," he said.
But Kompas said it wasn't too late for the federal government to turn things around, noting there was still an opportunity to devise "a safe and affordable transition to a post-Covid-19 era".
"If national cabinet revises its strategy to include our four vaccination steps, many lives will be saved, and many more, including children, will not suffer from debilitating long Covid."