It didn’t take long. Now it’s happening. The Omicron variant is accelerating a new Australian wave of Covid-19.
On Friday, daily infection rates in New South Wales hit a new record for any state, at any time during this pandemic at 2,213. The NSW health minister Brad Hazzard is predicting 25,000 new cases a day by the end of January.
Hospitals have been put on “red alert”.
Omicron is an unstoppable force.
But when it comes to lockdowns, the prime minister and NSW premier are immoveable objects.
“My simple message to Australians is to go about your lives,” said Scott Morrison on Thursday, from the coastal town of Terrigal. “Enjoy the summer.”
He recommends we “exercise the common sense precautions.”
But what are those precautions?
NSW Health’s Dr Jeremy McAnulty is urging people in Newcastle to abandon pre-Christmas socialising to “protect their loved ones, the vulnerable and essential workers”. The city is ground zero for the new surge. Newcastle’s Lunar Electric music festival planned for this weekend has been cancelled.
Yet at the same time NSW has honoured a pledge to open up the economy to the unvaccinated. Mask mandates and QR check-ins are disappearing. Beyond “high risk settings”, the decision on mask wearing is now left to each individual’s sense of “personal responsibility”, in the words of NSW premier Dominic Perrottet.
The state’s chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, has been sidelined but is sticking to her health advice.
“All I’m saying from a public health decision is I’m strongly recommending we keep masks,” she said on Wednesday.
It is weeks now since the prime minister began speaking of the government “stepping back” from people’s lives. With 90% of the adult population double vaccinated, that remains his course.
“What is not helpful is stop go, flip and flop,” he said in Terrigal. “What’s helpful is clear, decisive action, sticking to a course, taking the best advice … allowing people to make sensible choices, to get vaccinated, as we encourage people to come forward and get their booster shots.”
Australian studies confirm overseas analysis showing double vaccinations are not enough. “Significant community spread” of the Omicron variant is expected, warns the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
World Health Organization chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says Omicron “is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant”.
Booster shots are needed both to protect against infection and serious illness and death.
“We have a million vaccines right now in the distribution system, particularly in pharmacies, all around the country,” said Scott Morrison. “So if you are eligible please go and get that booster shot.”
But by his own account, that means Australia is in trouble.
“There’s over two million Australians who are now eligible for that booster shot,” he said, apparently not registering that one million Australians must miss out, or at least have to wait.
The shortfall will grow steeply if the regulator Atagi approves a reduced interval before the third shot from five months to four. Its previous decision to reduce the interval from six months to five means in Victoria alone there are 442,716 people now overdue for their booster.
Yet on the Victorian government’s own figures there are just 6,274 booster appointments available across state-run vaccination sites for all of next week. The commonwealth administered supply is going to have to do the heavy lifting.
As of Thursday 985,598 Australians have received a third shot. In round figures, 20m more shots will be needed to deliver a booster to everyone over 16 who is already double vaccinated.
The UK, by comparison, is offering everyone over 18 a booster shot by the end of this month, just two weeks away. Prime minister Boris Johnson has declared an Omicron “emergency”, warning of a “tidal wave” of infections. On Wednesday, new case numbers in Britain topped 77,000, nearly 10,000 more than the previous daily record 11 months ago.
The UK administered many of their vaccines months before Australia, but Omicron is not yet sparking an equivalent anxiety here.
“If you’re feeling uncertain, then it’s not compulsory to go out,” says Morrison. “It’s not compulsory not to wear a mask either … it’s just about being sensible, living with the virus, living confidently with the virus, living together with the virus.”
If Brad Hazzard is right in predicting 25,000 new cases a day in NSW alone within six weeks, many hundreds of thousands of Australians – perhaps millions – will have contracted Covid-19 between now and the federal election expected in May.
How we feel about that could be the political story of 2022.