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21 days until freedom: Australia could begin to ease lockdown rules in just weeks

Australia could be eased out of coronavirus lockdown in just three weeks, the deputy chief medical officer has announced, thanks to the country’s remarkably low rate of infection over the past week.  

Professor Paul Kelly said on Wednesday there had been just four new cases across the country in the 24 hours from 3pm Tuesday.

‘There may be more [cases] later, but we certainly appear to be flattening that curve very successfully at the moment,’ he said.

On Monday, there were 23 new COVID-19 cases and just 13 the previous day, down from a peak of 460 on March 28.  

Prof Kelly said the promising numbers had led the government to consider easing the strict measures, which have closed businesses and forced people to stay in their homes unless for essential purposes.

But three benchmarks need to be met before Australia reopens, he said, as residents continue to endure the unprecedented lockdown.

It has left hundreds of thousands of Australians unemployed, with businesses on the brink of collapse and the country facing a recession.

Despite the dramatic fall in cases, Professor Kelly warned the public not to become complacent, remarking that ‘you don’t take the parachute off as you’re approaching the ground.’

Despite increased testing, such as at this drive-through facility in Bondi Beach (pictured on Tuesday), Australia recorded only four new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday

As of Wednesday evening, Australia had 6,647 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 74 deaths linked to the respiratory virus

As of Wednesday evening, Australia had 6,647 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 74 deaths linked to the respiratory virus

The first criteria that needs to be met is the continued flattening of the infection rate, which Australia is on track to meet.

The second is large-scale uptake of a health tracking app, based on the one used in Singapore, which the government is planning to roll out within weeks.

Lastly is the ability of health officials to successfully deal with further outbreaks in vulnerable areas, such as the cluster which began in a Sydney care home on March 4. 

‘We certainly appear to be flattening that curve very successfully at the moment,’ Professor Kelly told reporters.

‘We are doing well. We need to absolutely be sure before we can start to release our social distancing measures.’   

The government hopes that a health tracking app, similar to Singapore's TraceTogether app (pictured) will help them to ease coronavirus restrictions

The government hopes that a health tracking app, similar to Singapore’s TraceTogether app (pictured) will help them to ease coronavirus restrictions

People queue up outside a Centrelink office in Melbourne on April 20 (pictured) after restrictions left thousands unemployed

People queue up outside a Centrelink office in Melbourne on April 20 (pictured) after restrictions left thousands unemployed

HOW CAN AUSTRALIA ESCAPE CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN?

The government has spelled out three crucial benchmarks that need to be met before lockdown is lifted.

1) Flattening the curve – a reduction in the number of new cases of COVID-19

2) Large uptake of a health tracking app – due to be rolled out soon

3) Response capability to major outbreaks – particularly in vulnerable places such as care homes

Speaking about the health tracking mobile phone app, based on Singapore’s TraceTogether app, Professor Kelly said large-scale uptake would help to control the spread of the virus.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said that 40 per cent of Australians would need to install the app before restrictions are eased.    

‘That will really assist us in terms of finding the contacts of people as quickly as possible so that the spread through the community can really be controlled,’ Professor Kelly said. 

The app is not mandatory, but uses Bluetooth to collect information about who users have come into close contact with.

It means if a user contracts COVID-19, health officials can work out who they may have unwittingly infected. 

Syndey's Coogee Beach is seen on Tuesday (pictured) after it was re-opened for residents to exercise

Syndey’s Coogee Beach is seen on Tuesday (pictured) after it was re-opened for residents to exercise

Social distancing (pictured at Sydney Fish Market on April 10) has helped Australia to contain the coronavirus outbreak, which has crippled many other countries

Social distancing (pictured at Sydney Fish Market on April 10) has helped Australia to contain the coronavirus outbreak, which has crippled many other countries

As for the third criteria, the readiness of health authorities to respond to clusters of the virus, Professor Kelly said officials need to be able to protect the vulnerable.    

‘The third one is our response capability whenever there is an outbreak related to particularly vulnerable settings, and aged care facilities are one of those vulnerable settings,’ Professor Kelly said.

‘We need to be able to show how quickly we can assist from the Commonwealth and between states to deal with outbreaks such as that.’

Even if these benchmarks are met, it will not mean a sudden return to normality, he remarked.

Instead, there is likely to be a gradual easing of restrictions to ensure the infection rate doesn’t spike – which would affect health workers’ ability to treat patients.    

‘As a colleague said to me today, just because you’re slowing down, you don’t take the parachute off as you’re approaching the ground,’ Professor Kelly said.

‘You wait until you’ve landed. 

Australia's daily infection rate has dropped significantly over the last few weeks, from a high of 460 a day to as few as four new cases a day

Australia’s daily infection rate has dropped significantly over the last few weeks, from a high of 460 a day to as few as four new cases a day

Travellers are seen arriving at an Adelaide hotel on Tuesday (pictured) for their 14-day isolation after being repatriated to Australia

Travellers are seen arriving at an Adelaide hotel on Tuesday (pictured) for their 14-day isolation after being repatriated to Australia

‘So, we are really clear here and the Prime Minister is clear – we’re waiting for that four weeks to (pass) before we change our advice broadly about social distancing and the other measures that have been put in place.’

Speaking after a meeting of the National Cabinet on Tuesday, Mr Morrison said Australia’s response to the virus was ‘working’ and was ‘saving lives and livelihoods’.

As of Wednesday evening, Australia has 6,647 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 74 deaths related to the virus.

This is far fewer cases than most of the country’s G20 partners, including the United States – which has suffered more than 45,000 deaths.   

‘We have got to stick to our plan,’ the prime minister said on Tuesday.

Success could mean the opening of bars, restaurants and beaches over the coming months (pictured, Bondi Beach closed on Tuesday)

Success could mean the opening of bars, restaurants and beaches over the coming months (pictured, Bondi Beach closed on Tuesday)

Hotels have been closed during the coronavirus outbreak, as have numerous shops and restaurants, leaving thousands out of work (pictured, Sydney's Darlinghurst on Tuesday)

Hotels have been closed during the coronavirus outbreak, as have numerous shops and restaurants, leaving thousands out of work (pictured, Sydney’s Darlinghurst on Tuesday)

CORONAVIRUS CASES IN AUSTRALIA: 6,652

New South Wales: 2,971

Victoria: 1,336

Queensland: 1,024

Western Australia: 546

South Australia: 438

Tasmania: 205

Australian Capital Territory: 104

Northern Territory: 28

TOTAL CASES:  6,652

RECOVERED: 4,932

DEAD: 74

‘Our plan is working. Our plan is saving lives and it is saving livelihoods. So we need to stick to that plan. We need to stick together in ensuring we maintain the implementation of that plan right across the country.

‘For those who are asking when can we ease? Well, we were clear about that last week. We laid down some clear markers as to what the requirements would be.’

He explained that there needed to be an effective rate of transmission less than the score of one – and that that would need to be achieved within the month.

High testing numbers, as well as tracing of contacts and response capabilities are key, Mr Morrison said.

‘They are the clear prerequisites,’ he added.

‘There is no uncertainty about that. I think that’s very clear.’

A police officer is seen speaking to walkers at Bondi Beach on Tuesday (pictured) amid tough coronavirus restrictions

A police officer is seen speaking to walkers at Bondi Beach on Tuesday (pictured) amid tough coronavirus restrictions

But states and territories are able to take action to ease their own restrictions.  

After the Federal Government introduced stage three restrictions on March 31, three states took the additional step of shutting their state borders. 

These are Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia.

‘We are not Sydney or Melbourne, we do not have the community transmission, the Territory is the safest place in Australia,’ NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner said last week.

Mr Gunner said by the end of April ‘we will have made enough progress to begin planning our pathway back to normal’.

Professor Kelly explained that health authorities need to be confident they can handle outbreaks, such as the one in an aged care home in Macquarie Park (pictured)

Professor Kelly explained that health authorities need to be confident they can handle outbreaks, such as the one in an aged care home in Macquarie Park (pictured)

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