By Ehssan Veiszadeh
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After almost three months of staying home and staying closed, Sydney is preparing for the unimaginable – freedom. As it warms up and our kids become increasingly restless, families are busily planning for a much better summer.
Our leaders have asked for patience throughout the lockdown. They’ve promised it will be all worth it once we vaccinate. And boy have we responded. Our pace of vaccination is among the highest in the world. On track to reaching 70 per cent double-jabbed by mid-October, hope is slowly returning to Sydney.
But if our leaders don’t get the policy settings right, there is a real risk we will be back in lockdown after a brief reprieve.
The NSW plan to reopen at 80 per cent of the population fully vaccinated is exactly right. Everyone will have been offered the chance to be vaccinated at that point. But it will all go so much better if we don’t stop at 80 per cent, and keep pushing to get as close to everyone as possible.
The best way to do that is to have strong incentives. And the best incentive? Not getting sick or dying from COVID-19. So we need a strong communications campaign from the government on the benefits of vaccines. But people who don’t get vaccinated still expect to show up at the emergency room to be treated – and they still pose a bigger risk to the rest of us. So they, too, need incentives.
We suggest two measures. First, the NSW government should keep the vaccine passport as a condition of access to restaurants, stadiums, travel and other activities. These should not be removed once we hit 80 per cent. They should remain indefinitely. Otherwise, the stragglers can simply free-ride on everyone else.
Second, the government should support employers to require vaccinations of their workforces. That means putting in place public health orders that remove as much legal risk as possible, and clearly outline its expectations regarding vaccination mandates in critical industries.
It simply cannot be left to businesses to navigate the legal minefield when it comes to keeping their workers and customers safe.
Clear government policy on vaccine mandates will create a level playing field so employers are emboldened to act. That way, those who do the right thing will not suffer a disproportionate loss of staff or become targets of anti-vaxxers, as they might if they are among a brave few taking action.
Before Delta, Sydneysiders enjoyed months of relative freedom while the rest of the world faced repeated lockdowns and outbreaks. We thought we had outsmarted COVID-19, but Delta had other plans.
That is what made this second lockdown even harder to deal with. Sydney cannot afford another setback. The biggest risk to our reopening plans will be the unvaccinated. They face a much greater risk of hospitalisation and death. And they pose a big risk to the entire community as they can quickly overwhelm our hospitals. There must be no hesitation from our leaders to meet this threat.
The good news is, it’s achievable. Australia doesn’t have a strong anti-vaxxer sentiment. There is no reason why we shouldn’t aim to come out of this pandemic with the highest vaccination rates in the world.
Ehssan Veiszadeh is deputy chief executive of the Committee for Sydney.