By July, Australia could be back to a weird new “norma”l where pubs, playgrounds and gatherings of 100 people are back on the cards, but hugs and handshakes are still off the agenda.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced three stages of loosening restrictions to gradually revive Australia’s community, economy and workplaces, but he says new coronavirus cases are inevitable in this period.
“There will be outbreaks, there will be more cases,” he told reporters in Canberra on Friday.
What happens when there are new positive tests?
Firstly, the responsibility for dealing with outbreaks is largely a matter for the states and territories, unless they call for federal help.
It’s also up to the premiers and chief ministers to lift restrictions at their own pace.
Mr Morrison says there will be “human error” as the restrictions are undone, but the Prime Minister is not contemplating a new national shutdown when fresh cases emerge.
He’s urging the states not to revert to tougher restrictions either.
I think it’s important we all hold our nerve,” Scott Morrison said.
“You can’t stay under the doona forever.”
Instead, it will be a matter of localised responses and an emphasis on the three Ts.
The three Ts: Testing, tracing and trapping
Widespread testing for coronavirus will be a feature of the process.
If someone tests positive, the disease detectives in health departments across the country will try and find anyone they may have infected and, if the patient has downloaded and approved access to the COVIDSafe app, it can be checked for further possible contacts.
Then it’s a matter of trapping the outbreak, which is likely to be done on a case-by-case basis.
A number of jurisdictions have already had experience in dealing with a localised coronavirus cluster, and there is already a set of national guidelines for them to follow about how to isolate the cases.
A recent outbreak of more than 70 cases at Cedar Meats abattoir in Victoria triggered the shutdown of the facility, and another cluster of more than 60 cases resulting in 16 deaths forced a lockdown at the Newmarch House aged-care facility in New South Wales.
Both were largely state-managed but another example in Tasmania, at the North West Regional Hospital, led the state to call in federal assistance, with Australian Defence Force medics sent in to help staff the emergency department while the hospital was cleaned.
Infectious diseases expert at the Australian National University Sanjaya Senanayake said he agreed with the stepped approach, but said Australia must be wary of the “hammer and dance” risks.
According to the analogy, the hammer falls as restrictions are put in place, and the dance phase applies when the measures are relaxed.
“The theory is that if you dance too quickly, the outbreak surges again and you have to bring down the hammer again and put restrictions in place,” he said.
Mr Morrison said yesterday he had faith such tactics would prevent a serious or widespread outbreak.
But he said if that did occur, “the health advice would play heavily in the decisions of premiers”.
What can you do to stop an outbreak?
The biggest weapon in our collective arsenal is still soap. Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy says hand hygiene remains paramount.
Physical distancing will also be a feature of every stage of the process.
On top of that, Professor Murphy says it’s more important than ever for people who feel sick to stay home and get a coronavirus test.
“No more heroics for anyone coming to work with a cough and a cold and a sore throat,” Professor Murphy said. “That’s off the agenda.”
This is something associate professor Senanayake called the risk of “presenteeism – the opposite of absenteeism”.
“It’s really important that workers don’t show up unwell because they think they will let the side down,” he said.
Testing people who feel even mildly ill is vital to finding the “hidden cases” that lurk undetected in the community, Professor Murphy said.
“We’ve got very low case numbers but the virus is still there. It’s still in our community,” he said.
He is continuing to encourage people to download the mobile app and says 5.3 million Australians have already taken that step.
And lastly, more than a third of coronavirus cases arrived in Australia from overseas and the Government has given no timeline for when Australia will reopen its borders.
Apart from a possible Trans-Tasman bubble with New Zealand, where case numbers are also low, one of Australia’s most effective measures will be to remain largely cut off from the rest of the world.