Australia’s effort to slow the spread of coronavirus is earning praise from the federal Health Minister but it’s coming with a warning that there’s no end in sight to the restrictions that have shuttered swathes of the economy.
Greg Hunt lauded Australians for adhering to the Prime Minister’s demand to stay home at Easter, amid fears travel could lead to a spike in the spread of the disease.
“Australians have done what we had hoped — and more,” he said.
“They have stayed at home. They have self-isolated.”
Slowing the spread has led to hopes restrictions might soon be lifted and life will return to normal.
But the Health Minister has outlined the three tests Australia would have to pass before the restrictions end.
Test one: A sustained decrease in cases
Having started handing out billions of dollars in welfare in a bid to help Australians avert joblessness amid an economic downturn, federal leaders are now turning their attention to how the nation will bounce back.
Mr Hunt said authorities were “actively planning the road out” and the first test would be a further fall in COVID-19 cases in Australia.
“One [test] is clear indication that we are suppressing the case numbers in Australia,” he said.
Australia has so far managed to flatten the infection curve, recording fewer than 100 new cases a day for the past week — well down from weeks ago.
But further falls in cases are needed.
There have been more than 6,300 cases, more than half of which have already recovered.
Test two: Rapid response capabilities
In recent weeks, Australia has been frantically trying to increase the number of ventilators available for intensive care units across the country.
It wants to ensure that if there is a sudden surge in cases, hospitals will have the resources they need to treat patients.
The Federal Government is growing increasingly confident the nation will soon have enough ventilators.
But it also needs to be prepared to quickly trace any potential outbreak.
Mr Hunt said leaders needed to be satisfied that if there was a localised spike in cases, then health workers would be well placed to respond, contain and isolate the infected people.
“If there were individual cases which broke out into a local spike, then the ability to respond, contain and to isolate will be absolutely critical to Australia’s capacity to, further down the track, progressively lift restrictions on a step by step basis,” Mr Hunt said.
Test three: An exit plan
Mr Hunt confirmed the Government was working on a plan for the “steps out”, which would involved gradually reopening businesses.
The Prime Minister has flagged that some states and territories might start to reopen businesses ahead of others.
But he has repeatedly said social-distancing measures will be in place for at least six months and potentially longer if researchers are unable to develop a vaccine.
Mr Hunt said Australia was looking to South Korea, Japan and Singapore to monitor how they were planning their response to the virus.
He said any steps to reopen Australian businesses would be targeted and gradual to ensure there was not a sudden surge in cases.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has warned it will be weeks before authorities can judge how successful Australia had been in slowing the spread of the virus.
But he said there were few signs that Australia needed tougher measures in the interim.
“Our track record over the past few weeks is looking pretty good,” Professor Murphy said.
We’re continuing in the right direction. I’m not sure further measures are warranted on the data we have at the moment.”
When we pass the tests, will life return to normal?
Few can predict when Australians will be able to leave their homes.
It’s clear that when some restrictions drop, others will remain in place — particularly the ban on international travel.
Federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said domestic travel restrictions were likely to be relaxed well before Australians were able to head overseas again.
“This is a time where, unfortunately, people can’t undertake holidays and they won’t be able to go overseas for some time to come,” he said.
“There may be a slightly earlier point in time where it becomes feasible to think about domestic travel again — we’re not there yet.
“But certainly this time is a good time for a bit of dreaming, planning, thinking about the Aussie break that you might take when we finally get to the other side of this.”