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The director of the Doherty Institute, whose modelling underlies the national plan to reopen Australia, says reopening with large numbers of daily COVID-19 cases will still be safe once the country reaches its target of 70 to 80 per cent of the adult population vaccinated.

After days of debate between state premiers, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and epidemiologists over the suitability of those targets given the size of the Delta outbreak in NSW, Professor Sharon Lewin confirmed the number of cases did not materially alter the Institute’s modelling on which the plan was based.

Doherty Institute director Sharon Lewin.

“The really big important issue about moving from phase A to phase B is that we’re moving out of an environment of zero-COVID,” she told the ABC’s The Drum program on Monday evening. “Zero-COVID is no longer the goal once you have 70 to 80 per cent of people vaccinated. Whether you start at 30 cases or 800 cases you can still open up safely.”

Professor Lewin confirmed the Doherty Institute had provided updated advice to the federal government to that effect. She explained that although the modelling used an example of a starting point of 30 cases a day, if the starting point was higher, “you’re just catching the same curve, but you’re getting to the peak quicker”.

“At the moment there really is no difference with how the model predicted outcomes,” Professor Lewin said. “Whether you open up at 30 or if you open up at 800, you still continue to see numbers escalate.

“With 70 per cent vaccination you will get hundreds of thousands of cases, even starting from 30 cases. However, in the presence of vaccination, your deaths and hospitalisations will be greatly reduced. With the addition of public health measures you can also contain those infections.”

Professor Lewin told The Drum it was less certain how well states would be able to test, trace and isolate once borders opened, COVID-19 circulated and there were hundreds of cases a day.

But she added: “The goal of test, trace and isolate is slightly different when you’ve got a very high number of people vaccinated – you’re not trying to get rid of every single case, because we’re moving away from zero-COVID to living with COVID. That is the big shift that I think everyone needs to understand. Living with zero-COVID forever is really very unrealistic.”

As The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age revealed on Sunday, Professor Lewin is expected to present the additional advice to state premiers at a meeting of national cabinet on Friday. NSW reported more than 800 new cases on Monday for the third day in a row.

Mr Morrison used a press conference on Monday to strongly call upon state premiers to stick with the plan agreed only weeks ago that said lockdowns would become far less likely when 70 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated and only “highly targeted” when 80 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated.

The 80 per cent threshold also ushers in a return to relatively normal life, with vaccinated residents exempted from all domestic restrictions, and all restrictions removed on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians.

However, some premiers have backed away from the plan in light of the NSW outbreak. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the Doherty Institute’s modelling was “was premised on there being around 30 cases in the community, and now we have thousands of cases”.

West Australian Premier Mark McGowan claimed on Monday that “the modelling is out of date” and should be re-examined due to the NSW outbreak.

Mr Morrison said the premiers had made a deal with the Australian people by signing up to the reopening plan and they ought to keep to that agreement rather than “undermine it for political purposes”.

“This [zero-COVID approach] cannot go on forever, this is not a sustainable way to live in this country, without those freedoms that we all cherish,” he said.

“If not at 70 per cent and 80 per cent, then when? Then when? We must make that move and we must prepare to make that move and we must prepare the country to make that move.”

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