On Thursday afternoon as the business community welcomed the NSW Government’s roadmap out of COVID restrictions, some immediately inquired, “doesn’t this discriminate against unvaccinated members of the community and the workforce?”
The short answer is ‘yes’. That’s the whole idea. And while this may not sound like freedom, freedom can be a relative thing.
Since 18 March 2020, we have lived under various forms of restrictions on our liberty. For the Illawarra the harshest lockdown measures lasted for 15 weeks last year and 10 weeks (and counting) this year.
The inability to leave one’s home without permission, and the requirement to hand over personal information to the Government when entering a public place are limitations on our freedom that Australians have not seen in living memory.
Yes, these measures were introduced to save lives – particularly those of the elderly – and compared against most other nations have largely succeeded. But the social and economic cost has been immense and, combined with indisputable evidence that we are battling a second, silent pandemic in mental health, enough is enough.
Enough home schooling, enough young lives on hold and enough shuttered businesses propped up on welfare. Our community is suffering and our businesses are under siege to the point where many may not recover.
We’ve known from the start that vaccines are our ticket to COVID freedom, and after a slow start, they are now widely available and being injected into arms across the state at a mounting rate.
When 70 percent of adults over 16 have received both doses of a vaccine, estimated to be by 18 October, the Government’s roadmap will have us gathering in limited numbers and reopening our venues, retail stores and gyms to fully vaccinated individuals (and those with medical exemptions).
Full credit is due to the Government for listening to business and delivering this plan so promptly. We are lucky to live in a state where there is a bipartisan consensus in favour of reopening the economy as soon as it is safe, rather than the parochial border games and politicking occurring elsewhere.
Businesses and the wider community have scant patience for this, and state premiers will again be tested on how cohesively they can work together – and with the Commonwealth – to streamline vaccine passports and enact the reopening of state borders.
The NSW roadmap puts responsibility squarely in the hands of us – as individuals and as members of the wider community. When we reopen, if you don’t want to get vaccinated then nothing changes for you. You remain at home; nobody will be forcing you to leave the house. And if we fail to reach these milestones as a state, current restrictions will remain indefinitely. In essence, if we want to go back to a relatively normal life, it is completely up to us.
When we hit the 80 percent double dose target, predicted to be in early-to-mid November, the Government has committed to open up further freedoms on international travel, community sport, major events and other areas.
I have heard concerns from business owners about being on the front line in ensuring staff and customers play by the rules and are vaccinated, and I have been able to pass on assurances from the Government that NSW Police will deal with any breaches.
Sure, vaccination remains a sensitive topic for some. In 2013 I was working for the Health Minister when parts of NSW faced frighteningly low vaccination rates for young children. This was occurring against a backdrop of misinformation being spread by anti-vaccination groups and, conversely, a media campaign to ban unvaccinated children from childcare.
Ultimately the Government introduced laws which included fines for childcare centres that enrolled an unvaccinated child but allowed exemptions for those that could prove it would be harmful to their child or was against their religion.
We learned that that there is no point taking draconian measures against people with anti-vaccination views; but rather we must continue to explain the evidence and reiterate the benefits to them respectfully.
But the stakes are even higher this time and the community’s patience has run out. An August Newspoll suggested that resistance to vaccination for COVID is hovering at around 10 percent of the NSW community. This far into the lockdown, I suspect this number has shrunk further.
With the roadmap in effect, it is clear that the vast majority of us are ready to move on, and for those left behind, it will be by their own choice.