Originally published in The Guardian on September 8, 2021

In an amazing feat, both leaders shift attention away from their past performances and on to future freedoms to be granted, based on decisions made by the public

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian and prime minister Scott Morrison at a press conference at Kirribilli House in July. Both leaders have faced criticism over perceived lockdowns delays and slow Covid vaccine rollouts. Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

In the ultimate expression of neoliberal language, prime minister Scott Morrison and New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian are gradually shifting their messaging away from the dangers of Covid-19 and towards the dangers of people making bad choices. Those who “choose” not to vaccinate and who “choose” not to follow the rules are far more likely to get the virus. And of course, those without “underlying conditions” have so much less to fear, suggesting the “choice” of a healthy lifestyle will offer us further protection.

While the individual choice to make an appointment to get the vaccine available to you right now is an incredibly important one, the most important choices about the fight against Covid aren’t being made by individuals – they are being made by our elected representatives.

A month ago, the prime minister and NSW premier were in a brutal public stoush about whether it was Morrison’s strollout or Berejiklian’s lockdown-light that most threatened the national plan for recovery. Now, in an amazing feat of political pragmatism, both leaders are united in their desire to shift attention away from their past performances and on to our future freedoms; freedoms that depend on the choices we make, not the choices they have made. It’s a masterful performance.

Both Morrison and Berejiklian talk endlessly about the Doherty modelling and the freedoms offered when Australia gets to 70 or 80% vaccination (there’s a big difference between those numbers). Neither mention what the Doherty modelling says about opening before those thresholds. Their silence is no accident.

On 6 September 38.4% of Australians, and 41% of those in NSW, had received two doses of vaccine, which is a long way short of 70%. Yet with 1,500 cases a day, an overwhelmed contact-tracing system and ICU wards under strain – Berejiklian was already talking about reducing restrictions and offering rewards to those who choose to get vaccinated.

The Doherty modelling doesn’t even model opening up with less than 50% adult vaccination. It does however predict that if our leaders choose to open up at 50%, then the country would need to be in lockdowns about 80% of the time to avoid overwhelming the intensive care system.

Indeed, the Doherty modelling doesn’t tell our elected representatives what level of vaccination they should target before opening the unvaccinated population to much greater risk of catching Covid. Nor does it describe any such relieving of restrictions on our movement as “safe”. The Doherty modelling simply presents projections of the likely spread of Covid under a range of hypothetical scenarios that seemed plausible in June.

The Doherty modelling is also silent on the merits of states like Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania opening their borders to states with high numbers of cases, like NSW – which means state premiers have some big decisions to make. In the hypothetical scenario examined by the Doherty researchers, the initial outbreak was assumed to be evenly spread across all the states, so the risk of someone carrying the virus from Sydney to Perth was assumed to be equal to the risk of someone taking it from Perth to Sydney. But that’s not at all what Australia looks like in September 2021.

Science can inform policymaking but science can never make democratic decisions about risk and return for us. There is no “right” amount of risk for individuals or communities to take. The evidence that led John Howard to ban automatic weapons has had no impact on US policymakers, and John Howard allowed people to keep all sorts of firearms that are not allowed in the UK.

Democracy is about delegated decision making. While individuals can choose to get vaccinated, they can’t choose how quickly vaccines will be rolled out through their community, how many ICU beds there are, and how many doctors and nurses will be on duty when they are needed.

The Doherty modelling provides clear evidence that the faster a community can be vaccinated, the better it will be for our health and our wealth. But the hypothetical scenarios in the Doherty modelling do not tell us, or our leaders, what they should do now that NSW has let a small outbreak turn into a large one.

Despite prime minister Scott Morrison’s clear statement to the contrary, we are in a race. It is true that we can’t hold Covid back forever, but we can decide how many of us are vaccinated before we open up. Rarely in our recent history have we seen such a clear example of how important the decisions of our leaders can be to our health and our wealth.

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