Expert says COVID likely to stymie family gatherings this Christmas

An Australian expert in infection control says anyone dreaming of booking a Christmas holiday interstate is “wasting their time” because vaccination rates are likely to still be too low.

Professor Mary-Louise McLaws said she was “really sorry to say that” but warned that “unless authorities start listening to the science”, Australians would not be free to enjoy Christmas with large family celebrations.

She is urging states to adopt US and Canadian models and use rapid antigen COVID tests, which produce results in 10 to 15 minutes.

“You could get the whole family tested at pop-up test sites, go into the restaurant, and enjoy Christmas,” she said.

The elephant in the room
Prof. McLaws said rapid antigen tests had been “the elephant in the room” since the pandemic began, with state health authorities arguing that PCR tests, which take longer to process, are better at detecting COVID infections.

“It really is not accurate to say these screening tests are not good. They are not supposed to be used as diagnostic tests,” she said.

“But they are fantastic for screening people, particularly several times.

“If you use a rapid antigen test two days in a row, it equals the same level of sensitivity [as a PCR test], which is the accuracy of identifying you as infected, and specifically, the accuracy of identifying you as not infected.”

While PCR tests look for fragments of the virus in swab samples, the rapid antigen tests look for proteins called antigens on the surface of the virus.

They are inexpensive and come in a test kit similar to a pregnancy test.

Prof. McLaws, who advises the World Health Organization and has also advised the European Commission on pandemic planning, said Queensland and Victoria could open their borders using pop-up rapid antigen test booths “instead of relying on something as foolish as a declaration form where people knowingly or unknowingly may declare they have not come from a hotspot”.

TGA under pressure on rapid testing

a sign saying rapid antigen testing at a building site
Professor McLaws says states should roll out rapid antigen testing for COVID-19. (ABC News: John Gunn )

Federal health minister Greg Hunt this week announced a rapid shake-up of the testing regime by sanctioning 28 types of rapid antigen tests.

Final approval now lies with the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA).

Queensland’s low vaccination locations
Data shows Queensland has five of the 10 lowest full vaccination rates for people aged 15 and above in Australian local government areas, including 4.8 per cent in Cherbourg, 11 per cent in Yarrabah and 13 per cent in Isaac, in central Queensland.

Overall, 53.3 per cent of eligible Queenslanders have had their first dose, and 34.75 per cent are fully vaccinated, the second lowest rate of coverage in the country.

Prof. McLaws said the figures for high-risk young people were much lower, with only 14 per cent of people aged 16 to 39 having had their first dose, and 15 per cent fully vaccinated.

She said opening up for Christmas would not be possible unless there was a national priority to vaccinate that age group, describing them as the “drivers of Delta”.

Premier still hopeful
The Queensland government offers no certainty about Christmas in its latest road map out of the pandemic.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the government was waiting for modelling on vaccine supply.

That data will allow the government to predict when Queensland will hit the 80 per cent figure for double-dose vaccinations.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk speaking about COVID-19 on the Gold Coast
Annastacia Palaszczuk says vaccination is the clearest path to opening up.(ABC News: Kimberley Bernard )

“I really, really hope Queenslanders will be able to travel, but it will be when the whole of the country gets to that stage,” she said.

“There are some states already open to travel and I think people will look to those states where they can travel and make those plans.

“Our clear message today to Queenslanders is to get vaccinated.”

She said she was being inundated with selfies and videos of people getting vaccinated “giving me the thumbs up”.

Nothing festive for tourism operators
Pandemic-battered tourism businesses fear a Christmas season with few interstate or overseas visitors will bring little cheer.

Industry leaders said the industry, normally worth $26 billion a year, had already suffered a $13 billion wipe-out, with more losses to come.

tall buildings next to beach
Gold Coast businesses are in desperate need of interstate visitors.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale )

Destination Gold Coast CEO Patricia O’Callaghan said local tourism operators faced another set of school holidays minus interstate visitors later this month.

“It happened at Easter, it happened in June and July and it’s happening again now,” she said. 

“Traditionally, Christmas is a peak period for visitation and anecdotally, bookings are trickling in slowly right now.

“We know there is pent-up demand to visit the Gold Coast and our industry will bounce back once travel conditions improve.

“But the reality is we currently don’t have access to our eastern seaboard market who make up the majority of interstate visitors.

“Our tourism operators are taking it day by day, hour by hour, after more than 18 months of disruption.”

Mark Olsen smiles in front of the Cairns Lagoon with apartments behind.
Mark Olsen says people are booking accommodation in hope of being able to travel.(ABC News: Brendan Mounter )

Tourism Tropical North Queensland CEO Mark Olsen said occupancy levels were increasing for the September school holidays, thanks to support from Queenslanders.

“This time last year the destination was locked out of Sydney and Melbourne and occupancy reached 50 per cent for the two weeks of the school holidays, when visitors peaked at 32,000 through Cairns Airport,” he said.

“Our retail travel partners are reporting that people are buying ‘hope travel’ – they want something to look forward to and will book if there is flexibility with the booking.

“These forward bookings will give businesses the confidence to keep operating and to keep staff on in the lead-up to Christmas, when we hope to see visitor numbers increase.”

Will international travel save Christmas?
Qantas has been doing its sums on international flights resuming by December.

The airline’s chief executive, Alan Joyce, is aware Australians could be flying overseas before they are allowed to travel everywhere domestically.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce
Alan Joyce hopes the Doherty plan will free Australians to travel for Christmas.(Four Corners )

He is urging consensus from the states on allowing people to celebrate Christmas in countries that could have a travel bubble, such as Fiji or New Zealand.

“We hope … the four-phase plan will be implemented as National Cabinet have agreed,” Mr Joyce said.

“I think the Doherty report has been clarified, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be kept to by the end of the year.

“We continue to plan on that being the case.

“I think a lot of people would be very upset if that didn’t happen by Christmas.”

Are you hopeful of travelling interstate by Christmas? What do you think about rapid antigen tests? Have your say in the comments section below.

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