explainer

Why isn't Australia in lockdown? The question many are asking, explained.

Australians immersed in the news about the COVID-19 pandemic are seeing more and more headlines shouting “lockdown”.

Only, they don’t apply to us.

China, Italy, France, South Africa, India and the UK, are among several countries that have closed all non-essential services, shut schools and forced people to stay inside their homes.

Your questions about COVID-19, answered.

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Most have been battling the virus for longer and have far more cases than Australia, but this week, even New Zealand — which has so far recorded just 205 cases and no deaths — joined them.

So, as the world locks down around us, many Australians are wondering why our Government isn’t doing the same.

Let’s take a look at who makes that decision, how, and what the response has been.

Who decides how Australia responds to coronavirus?

The way Australia responds to the COVID-19 pandemic is considered by the National Cabinet, a forum that consists of the Prime Minister and the leaders (Premiers and Chief Ministers) of each state and territory.

Created on March 13 to respond to the novel coronavirus crisis, it operates with a coordinated, whole-of-government approach, the likes of which haven’t been seen since WWII.

Chief among the cabinet’s advisors is the Australian Health Protection Principals Committee (AHPPC), which is comprised of all state and territory Chief Health Officers and is chaired by the Australian Chief Medical Officer.

Using the recommendations of the AHPPC and other experts and advisory groups, the individual Governments then determine how to act.

The national response, of course, is up to the Federal Government.

And likewise, the states implement their own measures to suit their services and circumstances. For example, New South Wales announced the closure of the state’s restaurants, pubs, bars and cafes on March 22, before Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a nationwide shutdown. Likewise, Victoria opted to close schools early ahead of the break, and Tasmania enacted its own travel restrictions.

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Why isn’t Australia in lockdown?

As of Wednesday afternoon, Australia has 2,423 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and has recorded eight deaths.

Forty per cent of those cases — 1,029 — have been reported in NSW alone.

Scott Morrison has said that the goal of Australia’s response is: “to slow the rate of transmission of the coronavirus within Australia.”

So far, that has involved a, sort of, bit-by-bit approach that’s led us to extensive travel restrictions, the closure of a large range of non-essential businesses (including restaurants, pubs, clubs, casinos etc.) and restrictions on gatherings.

Some argue the obvious next step is community lockdown, and that it should happen soon to be most effective in “flattening the curve” (i.e. slowing down the number of new cases per day, so hospitals don’t become overwhelmed).

But the AHPPC doesn’t agree. Yet.

In a statement issued on Monday, it said it does not support the closure of schools or a community lockdown “at this time”.  It argued that there is no clear strategy for how long lockdowns should last, nor what the long-term effects are.

Today though, it acknowledged that, “the next step, if required, is likely to be a carefully considered closure of all activity except essential industries and services.”

But they’re still not ready to recommend it: “more disruptive measures should ideally be held in reserve until some assessment of the initial measures is possible.”

Should Australia be in lockdown?

The answer, of course, depends on who you ask.

But the overwhelming message from the scientific and healthcare community seems to be YES. A resounding, urgent yes.

The Australian Medical Association today encouraged lockdown measures: “It is a big call for governments to direct the population to cease work, suspend schools, and only leave home for essential needs, but the AMA will back governments in making this call.”

Thousands of doctors have also signed petitions to that effect. One of the most popular, authored by intensive care specialist Greg Kelly, urges the Prime Minister to enact an “immediate shutdown of all non-essential services in Australia and strict social isolation to limit the spread of COVID-19”.

Likewise, a body of experts from some of Australia’s top research universities recently endorsed a “go now, go hard, go smart” approach to social distancing, including the immediate closure of schools and more extensive bans on mass gatherings,  The Sydney Morning Herald reported this week.

The 22 specialists, from a collective called The Group of Eight, were called upon by Health Minister Greg Hunt to help develop Australia’s strategy: “Interventions need to be comprehensive and simultaneous to have the most impact,” their report read, “a slow trickle of interventions, or suburb-by-suburb lockdowns likely will not be adequate.”

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But… as the Chief Executive of the Group of Eight later conceded in an article for The Australian, “For governments, the choices are no less than a policy hell.”

“A ‘go now, go hard, go smart’ approach is probably the best way of suppressing the spread of the virus, but this will result in a range of social and economic consequences that will not be trivial,” she wrote.

It’s true that a lockdown would have a significant impact on large swathes of the community, including people living with disabilities, those living with mental illness, vulnerable older Australians, people in domestic violence relationships, and more.

How long would a lockdown have to last?

We know that Prime Minister Morrison has urged Australians to brace for at least six months of disruptions to their daily lives. But there’s evidence that if social distancing was significantly tightened we may not have to wait that long.

Research out of the University of Sydney, released today, concluded that if strict social distancing measures were adopted by at least 90 per cent of the Australian population, the spread of COVID-19 could be controlled by July. This year.

Crucially, the research also showed that social distancing would be largely ineffective if less than 70 per cent of us complied.

“If we want to control the spread of COVID-19 – rather than letting the disease control us – at least eighty per cent of the Australian population must comply with strict social distancing measures for at least four months,” research lead Professor Mikhail Prokopenko said, according to the University of Sydney.

“However, if ninety per cent of the population complies, then the duration could be as short as thirteen to fourteen weeks – meaning if we began tomorrow we could expect a control of COVID-19 by July.

“There is a clear trade off – stricter measures imposed earlier would reduce how long our lives are impacted by this disease. On the contrary, laxer protocols could mean a longer, more drawn out and ineffective struggle against COVID-19.”

Well, when you put it like that…

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The Australian Government Department of Health advises that the only people who will be tested for COVID-19 are those with symptoms who have either returned from overseas in the past 14 days or been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

Feature image: Getty.

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