In an interview with ABC TV News Channel’s Ros Childs, Burnet Institute Director and CEO Professor Brendan Crabb AC describes the decision by National Cabinet to scrap mandatory COVID isolation as disappointing, illogical and distressing.
Ros Childs: Professor Brendan Crabb, Director of the Burnet Institute, Brendan, thanks for being with us. What’s your reaction to the news that mandatory COVID isolation has been scrapped?
Prof Brendan Crabb: Well, it’s a disappointing, pretty dark day, actually. You know, it’s just illogical, and ill-informed. But for me, I find it quite distressing. You know, the Chief Health Officer or Chief Medical Officer, you heard there saying we’re much more immune now and so we can look forward to sort of less COVID as a result.
Well, it’s true, we’re much more immune, but we just had our worst wave in July and August, we had far more deaths than we had earlier in the year. We had more hospitalisations than we had earlier in the year. And this notion that somehow COVID is like the flu is just wildly wrong. It’s 40, or 50 times worse than the flu for severe outcomes.
And it’s also a different infection. It’s an infection of the organs in your body, of your heart and of your brain and of your blood vessels. And it’s leaving this long COVID burden that is possibly worse than the acute burden. So yeah, quite a quite a disturbing day. Directly, isolation is a very important adjunct to vaccination and to, you know, treating the air, cleaning the air and wearing a mask - it’s all we’ve really got. It’s also of little cost if there’s low COVID. So one of the reasons given for scrapping it is there’s less COVID around at the moment, so why not keep it? Because there’s less cost with it. And of course, it helps knock the top off the next wave, so it’s a bizarre decision.
Ros Childs: The isolation period has been gradually reduced over time, it went from 14 days to seven days, to five now zero. How long ideally, would you like to see the isolation time? How many days would you like people to stay home for?
Prof Brendan Crabb: Well, I think firstly, having some (time) sends a very good signal. You know, it’s not the flu, it’s much worse than the flu. And this sends that signal to have any mandatory isolation period at all and, and of course, assistance for those to stay home in the form of payments. Realistically, seven days was an absolute minimum. You know, you need a bit longer to be confident that you’re not transmitting the virus. So we very much are going to have more virus as a result. You mentioned that whittling down not just the isolation period, but of other COVID measures, the mandatory masks and so on, the flattening of the vaccination curves, you know, all of those will have contributed to why we had worse COVID in July and August. But what’s also really happening is very rapid evolution of this virus itself. And the next wave has started in Europe and of course, will follow here soon after. We really very much want to be ready for that.
You need to understand that we’ve got 20 to 25,000 Australians who will die this year because of COVID, a good 15 percent increase on our normal death rate. These are people who would otherwise have lived. I didn’t hear that really stressed today. And that’s one of the really distressing things.
This is a forgotten group of people. It’s a terrible epidemic that’s going on at the moment. It’s nothing like any other respiratory disease and I find that just quite a disingenuous line of discussion.
Ros Childs: In light of the announcement should aged care homes and other vulnerable locations step up their defences to keep people they are looking after safe?
Prof Brendan Crabb: Well, they have to, because the community is not going to do it for them. That’s really what the announcement today said. It’s unfair. And it’s also only very limited in how successful they can be. Of course, aged care facilities and all vulnerable people, of course, many of us don’t know who’s vulnerable and who’s not who’s immunocompromised, and, and so on - who’s on cancer therapies, and all of those groups are at higher risk. They have to be more careful because the community is not going to do it for them.
You know, that’s the big failing, it’s all of our duty to protect the most vulnerable in our community. On top of that, of course, we’re all vulnerable. Long COVID and the effects of long COVID are not so age dependent.
They’re not so obviously vulnerability dependent. They can affect us all. But yes, aged care facilities are going to have to step up because they’re on their own.
Ros Childs: And, Brendan, are we getting anywhere near a herd immunity situation? Or does the emergence of different variants really mean that that is unachievable?
Prof Brendan Crabb: It does mean it’s unachievable. Herd immunity does look like it’s unachievable with the tools we’ve got at the moment. There’s a lot being made of infection on top of vaccination boosting your immunity, which is true, it does boost your immunity. But the waves are still getting worse for Australia. Even though that immunity is a really good thing, they will be vastly worse without it. So the virus is still beating us. That’s why the BA five wave was worse than the BA one wave we had in February for hospitalisations and deaths despite our immunity being fantastically better. So the next wave or two we can expect a similar effect - maybe less cases but likely to be still worse, severe outcomes or bad severe outcomes. That’s a very realistic option, at least, that we have to plan for. No, herd immunity with the tools we have is impossible.
We need these public health interventions to augment what we have. There are good days ahead because we’re getting better vaccines. There will be tools that end this pandemic. We don’t have them now. We seem to have surrendered to the virus for now and for its devastating effects.
Just something I just don’t understand because we can hold the line. We can hold the line and there’ll be better solutions with vaccines that knock this on its head, with drugs that knock this on its head. We don’t have them just yet.
Ros Childs: Brendan Crabb, very good to talk to you, thank you.