State and federal leaders have agreed to ease the ban on elective surgery, IVF and dental procedures as the number of new cases of the coronavirus continues to flatline around Australia.
After a meeting of the national cabinet on Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that while the government had to “stick to the plan”, the announcement was the potential first step for returning to a more normal daily life.
“Today we considered a number of measures and areas, and the first of those was in relation to elective surgery … we agreed to lift restrictions on elective surgery after Anzac Day … after the long weekend,” he said.
“This will not mean an immediate return to normal with elective surgery, but a gradual restart, subject to of course to capacity.
“Priority will be given … on the basis of clinical determinations by the relevant health professionals and that will occur in both the public and private system.
“This is an important decision because it marks another step on the way back. There is a road back.”
Mr Morrison said all category two or equivalent procedures in the private sector, and selected category three and other procedures would restart in seven days. That included breast reconstruction, post-cancer and dental procedures, such as fitting dentures, braces, fillings and drillings.
He said all procedures for children under 18, joint replacements for knees, hips, and shoulders, cataracts and eye procedures, endoscopies and colonoscopies would resume.
The measures mean a resumption of about 25 per cent of elective surgeries. They will be reviewed again on May 11.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said Tuesday’s decisions were due to the sustained and consolidated flattening of the curve of COVID-19 infections. Australia has had less than 1 per cent growth in new coronavirus cases for nine consecutive days.
“This is a collective national achievement. It’s every Australian who has been contributing. It is a very important day on the way back,” he said.
Mr Hunt said 7500 ventilators were available around the country, and 60 million masks had arrived. A further 100 million masks would become available within six weeks
Category three and most category two surgeries were cancelled in March to help hospitals deal with the expected surge in coronavirus cases.
The latest good news comes as the country’s three biggest states continued to record low numbers of new infections on Tuesday. NSW also said on Tuesday it would re-open schools gradually from May 11.
Victoria records handful of new cases
Seven new cases of coronavirus were confirmed overnight, bringing the state’s total to 1336. There have been 136 suspected community transmissions, and 28 people are being treated in hospital including 12 in ICU and 15 people have died.
Chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton said on Tuesday Victorians should not expect zero cases in the short term, but flagged hope of a total elimination of the virus.
“We’ve still got a lot of people coming in internationally … some of those will turn positive in some days,” Professor Sutton told ABC Radio.
“As long as there are returning Australians, we’ll see a few cases ticking over, but they are not as concerning in terms of transmission to others.
“If we were to carry on with the trajectory that we are on, we could see zero cases in a month from now.”
Professor Sutton said community transmission was low, making the option to eliminate the virus viable, but challenging.
Modelling released on Monday showed that without social distancing, Victoria could have had up to 36,000 COVID-19 deaths.
Under state three restrictions, Victorians are allowed to leave home only for essential travel.
Queensland technician infects lab staff
A cluster of COVID-19 cases has emerged in a Cairns pathology lab after a Brisbane technician visited the hospital and was later diagnosed with the illness.
Chief health officer Jeanette Young said a Brisbane employee travelled to the lab four weeks ago and tested positive when he returned.
“I received the serology results for three other people who had been in the lab, who had been infected, had the infection and have recovered,” Dr Young said.
“It’s clear they got it from that initial person and therefore this latest person got it through that process.”
Dr Young said the lab workers who had COVID-19 were able to access other parts of the hospital.
“We’re now doing further work to make sure there are no other unwell staff members or patients in the Cairns Hospital,” Dr Young added.
It comes as six more Queenslanders tested positive for the coronavirus, a day after the state reported zero new cases.
That figure does not include the lab staff.
“We still do have cases in our community, so it’s too early to consider lifting restrictions at this time,” Dr Young said.
It brings the total number of cases to 1024, with 21 people in ICU and five on ventilators.
NSW schools to reopen as only six new cases detected
School students across NSW will receive some face-to-face learning in schools from May 11, building up to a full-time return to the classroom in late July.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Tuesday said public, Catholic and independent schools were all on board with the plan. Schools are open amid the coronavirus pandemic but students are encouraged to learn from home.
No more than a quarter of the school cohort will be on campus at one time.
- Related: NSW schools set to reopen
The government is aiming for a full-time return to school in term three, starting in late July.
“Will it be the same as kids going to school under normal circumstances? No, it won’t,” Ms Berejiklian said.
“We’ve made sure we’ve used this time not just to build up our online capacity … but we’ve also made sure we have enough hand sanitisers, soap and all those things which make a school community feel safe.”
Schools will also have the ability to temperature check students where appropriate and cleaning protocols will be ramped up. Medical advice dictates the highest transmission risk in schools is between teachers, rather than students.
Six new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed overnight, taking the state total to 2969 with 21 people in intensive care.
NSW authorities remain focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19 cases linked to a nursing home in western Sydney, where 42 people have become infected.
Tasmania records five new cases after NW cluster
The cluster of cases in north-west Tasmania are “trailing off” but authorities are being cautious about when social restrictions should be lifted.
Premier Peter Gutwein said an aggressive approach to combating the outbreak, which has included quarantining about 5000 healthcare workers and their households and closing two hospitals in Burnie, is showing promising signs.
“I’m hopeful that the measures we have taken are working,” he said on Tuesday.
The north-west had five new cases on Monday night, taking the region’s tally to 126 and the state’s overall figure to 200.
Of those, 112 are linked to the outbreak which has infected 72 healthcare workers and 22 patients.