One day a rooster, the next a feather duster. That terse reminder that success can be fleeting has long been popular in Australia. For the leaders of the country's response to the coronavirus pandemic, it has become regrettably apt.
Until now, Australia has enjoyed a glow of global approval for adroitly weathering the crisis with a "Covid-zero" policy of ruthless virus suppression. Having rushed to shut its international borders to non-citizens and non-residents last year, a measure that could stay in place until mid-2022, it deployed an enviable test and tracing system that has helped to keep its total Covid-19 death toll at 910. That is fewer than countries such as the UK have at times recorded in one day. Yet while Australia's stadiums and restaurants stayed full, and theatregoers thronged to Hamilton, the UK was doing one thing Canberra was too slow to organise: a successful Covid vaccine rollout.
"It's not a race," prime minister Scott Morrison insisted in March, as concerns grew about what critics have called a vaccine "strollout". He was wrong. Having squandered its early victory over the virus, despite being one of the world's wealthiest countries, Australia now faces a costly round of restrictions as it struggles to protect a largely unimmunised population from outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta variant. Sydney, home to a fifth of the nation's 25 million people, is entering its third week of a lockdown due to stay in place until July 16. Australia now stands as a warning to other nations, not least neighbouring New Zealand, that a fortress approach to the virus cannot succeed in the absence of an effective vaccine programme.
The contrast with Canberra's newly minted trading partners in the UK could scarcely be more stark. With roughly 50 per cent of Britons fully vaccinated, Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, unveiled plans last week to lift almost all coronavirus restrictions from July 19 in England. Shortly before that in Australia, where just 8 per cent are fully jabbed, Morrison announced the number of people allowed into the country from abroad would be halved to just 3,035 a week.
Johnson's move was hasty. But Morrison's approach also has a high price. Estimates of the financial and economic cost vary but the human toll has also been considerable.
Thousands of Australians have been stranded abroad since the pandemic began, unable to secure scarce, expensive seats on commercial flights that were limited even before the latest caps were announced. More government repatriation flights are planned to ease the impact of the latest arrival limits. But this will not help those affected by Australia's highly unusual decision to restrict its own citizens from leaving the country, a step designed to relieve pressure from returning travellers on its quarantine system. That system itself is another sign of complacency. Canberra only belatedly backed the construction of safer, purpose-built quarantine facilities, long after it was clear the virus had spread in hotels converted to house returned travellers.
Australia's approach has been domestically popular until now. Polls show some three-quarters of the population have backed the border closures. Yet as a panel of experts wrote in a recent report on how the country could reopen, "Australia cannot continue to lock itself off from the world as a hermit nation indefinitely." The social and economic costs are too large, especially for younger people. The wider lesson for a world facing ever more virus variants, is that glacial vaccine rollouts spell disaster, no matter how rich or hermetically sealed a country may be.
Written by: The editorial board
© Financial Times