Eyes back on the skies

An image of a woman waiting at an airport.

Image: miklyxa/Adobe Stock

Image: miklyxa/Adobe Stock

After almost two years of snap lockdowns, travel bans and restricted freedoms, Australia is meeting the vaccination levels required to finally begin living with the COVID-19 virus. But, as the risk of illness and virus variations remain, what does living safely with the virus actually mean, and just how ‘free’ will we be in the future? Contact spoke to a range of UQ experts to find out.

Living safely with the virus

Associate Professor Paul Griffin
Mater Clinical Unit
Faculty of Medicine

Living safely with COVID-19 relies on many things. First, an 80 per cent vaccination rate was the right target for opening the borders, but we can’t stop there. Once borders open, we need to continue to get vaccine rates as high as possible. Living safely with those vaccination rates also depends on what we do in parallel. We can’t forget about the things that have helped Australia – particularly Queensland – to get into this strong position. The future is about getting the balance right between the mitigation strategies that keep us safe, and that come with unintended consequences, and allowing the freedoms that we know can be done safely. We’re still going to use testing and ask people who are COVID-19 positive to remove themselves from the community. That’s not a new concept; we ask people with other communicable diseases to do that all the time. In certain circumstances, we’re going to use testing to our advantage – we may have rapid testing in high-risk communities at events and before travel. And, of course, we need to continue to work on therapies, identifying those who will benefit the most and getting them to where they need to be. New variants like Omicron will continue to emerge. The best way to combat this is to have high vaccination rates around the world to reduce the pool of susceptible hosts in which the virus can replicate. We must remember with any new variant, the basics that have helped us manage so far – like social distancing, hand hygiene, ventilation, masks and high rates of testing will still work. If, or when, our vaccines need to be updated to deal with a new variant, this can be done relatively quickly. If we do all those things right, I’m confident that we can live safely with this virus in the community. We need to give people confidence that we’re not going to rely on those harsh measures again and utilise every other available strategy before we contemplate lockdowns and border restrictions.

An image of Associate Professor Paul Griffin.
An image of Dr Kirsty Short

Protecting vulnerable communities

Dr Kirsty Short
School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences
Faculty of Science

I’m comfortable with the 80 per cent vaccination rate milestone that was set. However, I am concerned that these milestones are for Queensland as an average. We’ve seen higher vaccination rates in Brisbane than in regional Queensland, and I think that could potentially leave regional Queensland vulnerable to lockdowns once the state opens. If you do get COVID-19 in a community that’s only 40 per cent vaccinated, there aren’t many options available to you. In areas with high infection rates and low vaccination levels, there are also risks of virus variants occurring – like we have seen with the Omicron variant. Living in a remote community won’t protect you once we allow the virus in, so the best thing you can do is get a vaccine. The primary goal of vaccination is to break the link between infection and hospitalisation, and that is working around the world. In countries like the UK, we are seeing high case loads and very low hospitalisations. The question then becomes: is that because all restrictions have been lifted, or is that because they were too slow with their paediatric vaccine rollout, or too slow with their booster rollout? To a certain extent, we can learn from overseas. Australia is in a unique position, especially the states that have ‘COVID zero’, because other countries had to employ vaccinations when the virus there was widespread. In Queensland, we’re employing vaccinations before the virus has spread through the community – which changes the dynamics completely.

Adjusting travel behaviours

Associate Professor Gabby Walters
School of Business
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law

Even as borders open, uncertainty around travel will still affect people because they are traumatised by snap lockdowns and forced border closures. I recently surveyed 560 Australians about their international and domestic travel behaviours. Compared to April 2020, people’s sentiment towards COVID-19 has changed. Previously, people felt uncertain and uneasy about the virus, however the latest results indicate people are now feeling restricted and frustrated. Yet, only 51 per cent of respondents plan to travel overseas once borders open – concerns about getting ‘stuck’ overseas, travel being too restrictive and regulated, and a lack of faith in different health systems were all common themes. However, there’s also growing sentiment for Australians to choose to travel domestically due to a desire to help the Australian tourism market recover. But whether its domestic or international, the way in which people travel will be different. Risk management and mitigation will play a central role in planning and Australians will engage various risk-reduction strategies, such as ensuring they and their travel party are fully vaccinated, choosing destinations that have a health system of a similar standard to Australia, choosing transport and accommodation providers that offer full refunds, as well as avoiding physical contact with those outside their travel party.

An image of Associate Professor Gabby Walters.
An image of Professor Nicholas Aroney.

Freedom and human rights

Professor Nicholas Aroney
TC Beirne School of Law
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law

Vaccine certificates are likely to dictate much of how we live, but a vaccine certificate that is required for travel, employment or access to shops or restaurants will place a burden on human rights. Fundamental internationally recognised human rights include liberty of movement, freedom to leave a country, and freedom from scientific or medical experimentation or treatment without free and informed consent. They also include the right to work. Some of these rights, like the right not to be subjected to medical or scientific experimentation, are so fundamental that they cannot be derogated from, even in situations of emergency. In the European Union (EU) it is recognised that freedom of movement restrictions must be limited to those strictly necessary to safeguard public health. The EU COVID-19 certificate is therefore available to anyone who has been vaccinated against COVID-19, has received a recent negative test result, or has recovered from COVID-19. In my view, if vaccination requirements are going to be imposed in Australia, we should adopt a similar approach. They should only be imposed to the extent they are strictly necessary to protect those who are vulnerable to severe disease.