Australian doctors warn health system may 'capsize' when Covid-19 curbs ease

People wait in line to receive the Covid-19 vaccine outside the Qudos Bank Arena NSW Health Vaccination Centre in Sydney on Aug 19, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian doctors on Thursday (Sept 2) warned the country's hospitals are not ready to cope with the government's reopening plans, even with higher vaccination rates, as some states prepare to move from a virus suppression strategy to living with Covid-19.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) said the health system was in danger of being locked into a "permanent cycle of crisis" and has called for new modelling to check if staffing levels in hospitals can withstand an expected surge in cases when lockdown rules ease.

"If you have opened up and you haven't looked at the safety nets or the life rafts that we've got, we might end up actually trying to push more people on the life rafts and capsizing them," AMA vice-president Chris Moy told broadcaster ABC.

Australia in July unveiled a four-stage plan back to greater freedoms when the country reaches 70 per cent to 80 per cent vaccination levels.

But virus-free Queensland and Western Australia have said they may not stick to the reopening plans as the agreement was finalised when cases in New South Wales were much lower.

New South Wales on Thursday reported 1,288 new locally acquired cases, just below its pandemic high of 1,290 hit on Monday. Seven new deaths were recorded.

A total of 957 people are in hospitals, up from 698 a week ago, while cases in intensive care units (ICU) jumped nearly 40 per cent to 160, 64 of whom require ventilation.

Authorities quadrupled the number of the state's intensive care ventilators to 2,000 early last year, but the medical association's Moy said governments need to focus on hospital staffing before relaxing lockdown rules.

"It's not just the number of ventilators, it's not the number of IC units, it's the number of staff and people that are going to have to man this when we open up," he said.

Soaring cases forced Victoria on Wednesday to join New South Wales in abandoning a Covid-zero target as both states now see vaccinations as a pathway to freedom after failing to quell an outbreak of the Delta variant even after a weeks-long lockdown.

New cases in Victoria jumped to 176 on Thursday from 120 a day earlier.

Australia has largely lived in Covid-zero for much of the pandemic, recording just 1,012 deaths in total and just over 56,500 cases. But a slow vaccination roll-out has left it vulnerable to more infections and hospitalisations.

So far, only about 36 per cent of people above 16 have been fully vaccinated, well below most comparable countries.

The federal government urged all states to stick to the national reopening plan, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg saying the states can't "delay the inevitable."

"You have to learn to live with Covid-19. Covid-19 may come to your state within a week, it might be a month, it might be a little bit after that. But the reality is we can't eliminate the virus," Frydenberg told Nine News on Thursday.

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