Two months after the announcement of Australia's national reopening plan, the strategy behind it appears to have descended entirely into politics, rather than the purest distillation of medical advice and the best modelling.
The latter is what the public has come to expect, with leaders standing side-by-side with their chief health officers nearly every day, echoing their advice and letting everybody know that's where it came from - but that has always been largely a mirage. Policy is rarely that straightforward.
The Prime Minister and state and territory leaders have agreed to a four-phase plan, officially the National Plan to Transition Australia's National COVID-19 Response, that for all intents and purposes is the pathway to emerging from the pandemic underpinned by modelling from the Doherty Institute. At certain national percentage thresholds of the fully vaccinated - only counting those 16 and older - the country can reduce the number of restrictions and localise lockdowns to smaller patches of virus outbreaks.
Phase C is the most contentious. At 80 per cent of eligible vaccine recipients, equivalent to 64 per cent of the entire population, those vaccinated residents will enjoy far more freedoms, including exemption "from all domestic restrictions".
The problem is that it's a Schrodinger's reopening.
In the minds and rhetoric of leaders with communities crying out for freedom from lockdowns and even the return of international travel, it can be all those promises at once - a tidy package of incentivised hope that will very much come in handy when it comes time for re-election.
For the more cautious and the public health-minded, it can be a gradual building-up of community resistance to Covid's variants, with lockdowns and restrictions still in place so health workers won't be overwhelmed. When the borders reopen and seeding events become more frequent, these workers will be key to saving lives.
Until the box known as "Fortress Australia" is opened, nobody knows if the promised freedoms are real or dead on arrival - if the nation's health workforce capacities will be up for the workload from new seeding events.
Modelling can only tell us so much, and depend greatly on the assumptions built into them, says Professor Allan Saul, an expert in infectious diseases.
There is no reason to think the initial assumptions in the analysis done by the Doherty Institute aren't reasonable, he says, and the model itself is quite useful for policy planners. But the analysis also shows that the conclusions of the model are "terribly dependent on small changes" in testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine enforcement (TTIQ) capability.
That capability has seriously degraded in NSW, if around 80 per cent of newly reported cases each day are still under investigation up to 24 hours after first known to officials, Professor Saul says. There are many inputs into the models, and that may not be recognised by those making the policy decisions.
That's what happens at the interface of science and politics, he says.
"Scientists intrinsically know that this is a model, and it's sort of a guide. They'll waffle on and say more research is required," he says.
"For the politics, on the other hand, they want it really cut and dry. So you can say to the population, 'The Doherty model said this - bang! - we're going to open up at 80 per cent.'"
The Doherty model gives two different views of what happens at that point. Open up and don't do anything else? That leads to chaos. Two assumptions in the model were that there would be no degradation of TTIQ capability and that the reopening started with few cases across the whole of Australia. Neither are now accurate.
Professor Saul thinks that suppression might still happen, and that governments will adjust to what's happening next year instead of a plan decided last July.
The Australia Institute's chief economist, Richard Denniss, was one of many this week calling for a transparent conversation about whether the country has the capabilities to handle large numbers of mystery cases. That capability has been the front line of Australia's defence against Covid, he says.
"It is our TTIQ workforce that stopped the Ruby Princess outbreak from infecting the whole country. But while Australia's TTIQ is world-class, it can and it will be overrun if case numbers are allowed to keep rising," he says.
From time to time throughout the pandemic, fault lines have emerged between the country's leaders. What's different now is that despite an agreed plan, some state leaders are threatening to walk away from some of its elements, claiming they aren't in the interests of their communities.
All leaders, including Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejilkian, say they're on the side of a cautious reopening - but what that means is widely interpreted.
"So long as you have high rates of vaccination, Covid safety plans in place, [and] good information to the community ... we can show the rest of the world how we can have a managed way of life [back to] normality," Berejiklian said.
Western Australia and Queensland have beaten virus outbreaks. Queensland's latest success means a return to greater freedoms like dancing at nightclubs, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has confirmed. And she and WA's Mark McGowan are sick of being told what to do by the federal government.
The PM is banking that he, not the premiers, has the pulse of the nation.
"The seven to eight out of 10 Australians who have been fully vaccinated [when transitioning to the next phase of the national plan] will be a powerful voice in deciding what happens at that point," he has said.
His government did receive a small boost in the polls this week over Labor.
Politics, not epidemiology, will likely determine where we go from here.
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