If you’ve noticed the streets in your community seem busier than they have been for several weeks … you’re right, Australia is on the move again.
Despite the conflicting views at the highest levels of government on the right time to ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions, it seems many of us are voting with our feet – as daily exercise morphs into everyday trips to the shops, beach and neighbours.
Already governments in Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia have started lifting restrictions, but Victoria looks to be going it alone in keeping its full lockdown in place.
The National Cabinet will on Friday decide whether to relax some anti-coronavirus measures across the country.
Federal Industry Minister Karen Andrews says National Cabinet would look at sensible ways to relax rules based on expert medical advice.
“It’s very important that we all take baby steps,” she said from the Gold Coast on Monday, adding she was hopeful a vaccine would be ready by early in 2021.
“Quite frankly, until such time as we have a vaccine, life is not going to return to normal,” she said.
With that in mind, Victoria has no plans to lift restrictions until May 11 at the earliest, prompting criticism from the federal government – particularly over the continued closure of schools.
The experience of other nations suggests Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is right to be cautious.
Deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly said last week that Premier Andrews is taking that one step further – he’s watching the other states and seeing what can be learned from their reopening.
“If a second wave does occur, we’ll deal with it quickly and we’ll respond to it,” Mr Kelly said.
Experts say it’s not a matter of if, but when, new infections will occur.
While many have likened the slowing of the pandemic to coming down a mountain, Christian Yates, a senior lecturer in Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath described a more sobering metaphor in his recent article in The Conversation.
“A better analogy would be to the decelerating influence of a parachute,” he said.
Social distancing and other measures have slowed the spread to a point at which the impact of the disease is currently manageable. But cut the parachute too early, before the danger is averted, and the outbreak will accelerate again.’’
With beaches open in New South Wales, gatherings of 10 people allowed in WA and travel, picnics and jet-skiing all back on in Queensland, the other Premiers seem willing to risk a failed parachute jump if it means sticking their landing with the economy.
Having tried and failed to tackle Premier Andrews over his refusal to immediately reopen schools, the federal government is relying on its tracking app and an extended ban on overseas travel to mitigate the risks.
“Of course, there will be outbreaks. That is what living with the virus will be like,” conceded Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week.
The PM did not have to look far this week for an example – a new COVID19 case was detected in Canberra on Monday just four days after ACT Health declared the city free of the virus.
ACT’s deputy chief health officer Vanessa Johnston said a woman in her 20s had been in quarantine after returning from overseas.
There’s now clear evidence that a second wave of infections will arrive wherever restrictions are lifted.
Hokkaido’s lesson for Australia
In Japan the northern region of Hokkaido lifted its lockdown of businesses and schools on March 19 after new cases had fallen to below two a day.
But by the end of April, officials reinstated the lockdown measures after being flooded with 135 new cases in a single week.
That news prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to extend the country’s national state of emergency to May 31.
Abe said the restrictions will only be lifted after detailed analysis of regional infection trends.
AP also reported on Monday that India had 2600 new infections, while in Russia new cases exceeded 10,000 for the first time.
The US has seen mass protests against restrictions, resulting in thousands of new infections.
Italy has started to unwind Europe’s longest coronavirus lockdown, letting some 4.5 million people return to work after nearly two months at home and finally allowing families to reunite.
Given Italy’s death toll of more than 28,000, it’s a brave move that will be watched with interest around the world.
Has herd immunity kicked in? Will the second wave be worse than the first?
Singapore had a new wave of infections once its restrictions were lifted, although much of its problems appear to have been caused by allowing people to return from overseas.
And it’s not just the recent evidence that suggests a second wave of infections could get out of hand, with American historians noting that the Spanish Flu of 1918 came back with a vengeance in 1919 after resistance to measures designed to contain it.
At this stage Australia – minus Victoria – seems happy to chart the middle course.
It is not proposing lifting quarantine bans on people entering the country, ensuring that widespread testing, contact tracing and dealing with any outbreaks will be the core response to preventing a second wave.
Ultimately, the Victorian Premier’s stance will be judged on how few outbreaks there are in his state compared to others after lockdowns are lifted.
The cluster outbreak of 19 staff at a Victorian abattoir on the weekend would seem to suggest that there’s still work to be done with testing and tracing before the community is given free rein again.
Australia’s death toll now stands at 95, with the loss of an 83-year-old in Western Australia and a 76-year-old resident from Newmarch House in Sydney.