Australia could be trapped in coronavirus lockdown until the start of 2021 because tough social distancing measures will mean far fewer people are immune to the deadly bug, experts have warned.
The Federal Government took swift action to stop the spread of COVID-19 – which has killed nearly 90,000 people worldwide – and infection rates across Australia are relatively low, with 6,109 cases and 51 deaths to date.
But this could prove to be a double-edged sword, with any relaxation of lockdown restrictions potentially creating a huge spike in cases, scientists predicted.
Overseas, in countries such as America – where nearly half-a-million people are infected – lockdowns could end within just a few months, or even weeks.
This is because huge swathes of the population will have been infected and either died or recovered, making them immune.
Australia has significantly fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 than other countries
Restrictions that have seen the closure of parks, beaches, public BBQs (pictured on April 7 in Mollymook) and restaurants could go on for months to come
Australia’s daily infection rate has dropped significantly, but the aim of flattening the curve is not to stop people getting COVID-19 – but to ensure it is contracted gradually, experts said
But in Australia, not enough people will have been exposed to the virus – meaning it could still prove fatal for the elderly and those with medical conditions such as asthma.
HOW DOES IMMUNITY TO COVID-19 WORK?
Scientists haven’t yet worked out how immunity for the new strain of coronavirus works.
But if similar to other coronaviruses, once a person is recovered they could be immune for anywhere between 18 months and two years.
This means a recovered patient can go back outside.
But if someone has health issues or is elderly, they are still vulnerable until a vaccine is produced.
The situation has the potential to create a dangerous new social stratification in Australia, with healthy people allowed outside and the elderly trapped in their homes until a vaccine is produced.
Paul Komesaroff, Professor of Medicine at Monash University, told Daily Mail Australia that the Federal Government’s ‘responsible’ approach to the pandemic may be a mixed blessing.
‘In the UK and the United States, where because of the irresponsibility of the political leaders they missed the opportunity to impose restrictions early, huge numbers of people are getting the disease,’ he explained.
‘But it does mean that the peak is very, very sharp, and it may well be that the timeline for them is shorter than it will be for us. Ironically.’
A world-leading specialist on epidemic response, Professor Komesaroff said the strategy means Australia will likely avoid the ‘terrible suffering’ happening overseas, and be able to provide proper treatment to all patients hospital.
Barriers are set up at the Spit on the Gold Coast on Thursday. Council has closed some of the city’s beaches after thousands of people ignored social distancing rules
Australia has so far recorded 6,109 cases of coronavirus, with 51 deaths, far lower than most other G20 members – but it could prove a double-edged sword
Medical personnel are seeing conducting tests for COVID-19 at the Bondi Beach drive-through testing centre in Sydney on April 7 (pictured), as infection rates continue to drop
But this slow and steady process could go on for a significant amount of time, even longer than the six months predicted by the government.
‘It does mean that they will have huge numbers of deaths and terrible suffering and tragedy,’ Professor Komesaroff said of those other countries.
‘Meanwhile we may well find ourselves in the position where we’re flattening the curve, and rationing the number of people going into hospital.
‘We’ll have enough hospital beds in the best possible scenario, so that everyone who needs it will be treated.
‘We’ll have a relatively small number of deaths, which is the situation we have at the moment, that we’ll be able to deal with anyone who’s in need.
Brisbane’s Catholic archbishop Mark Coleridge delivers a Holy Thursday mass, which was broadcast online
Barriers are seen to Surfers Paradise Beach on the Gold Coast on Wednesday (pictured), with experts predicting such restrictions could be in place for many months
A deserted Surfers Paradise Beach on the Gold Coast is seen on Wednesday (pictured) after state governments clamped down on people going out for all but essential activities
‘But that might continue for many, many months. Even if we’re passed the peak and the numbers come down, most of the community – because of the strategy that’s been adopted – won’t acquire immunity.’
Another example is China, where the virus originated in a market in the city of Wuhan, which suffered 81,000 cases and 3,335 deaths.
Despite the huge loss of life, restrictions have already been lifted in some areas after just two months.
With a vaccine likely still a long way ahead and mass immunity not yet reached, restrictions could be partially lifted for Australians who are healthy and immune.
Beaches, including Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast (pictured on Wednesday) are likely to remain closed
This alarming graph shows how coronavirus cases have rapidly increased in America
WHY IS LOCKDOWN ONGOING?
Even though daily infection rates have plummeted in Australia, there is a high risk that it could rise again.
This is because a relatively small number of people have become infected, meaning less people are immune than in other countries.
Scientists predict that if people were to resume their daily lives on mass, it could result in thousands more getting sick.
This would put a strain on the health system.
But this would leave vulnerable and elderly people stuck inside their homes, while the young and healthy are allowed to return to their normal lives.
While there is not yet an approved test to see who is immune from the virus, they will be ‘imminently available’, experts said.
People become immune by being exposed to COVID-19 but then developing the antibodies to fight it off and recover.
‘They are serological antibody tests, which test whether people have been exposed to the disease and have developed antibodies against it, and therefore are presumably immune,’ Professor Komesaroff explained.
‘Once we have access to these tests, and they are in a high state of development and even being used in a limited way in the UK and elsewhere, then that may enable us to identify people who are safe to go back into the community and to resume their normal activities.
Shoppers are seen social-distancing as they queue to get into a Coles supermarket at Firle in Adelaide on April 6
Over in Spain, citizens are suffering far higher infection rates – but this could mean the country’s lockdown may end sooner
‘And clearly that will be important to get the economy going again, and provide good and services to those who need it.’
While this situation could lead to restrictions being progressively lifted, it could also mean creating a two-tiered society – where the immune can do as they please.
‘What’s quite likely is certain people who are most isolated and most vulnerable would still have to remain in isolation,’ he added.
‘And that could be elderly people, and that could present some social problems.
‘If there are certain people who are young and have been out and about and contracted the disease and recovered and can go about their business, it may still be that certain people will continue the need to be locked down in one form or another for an indeterminate amount of time.
Older Australians could be left trapped in their homes, while young and healthy people are allowed to return to normal, experts warned (pictured, a Melbourne mural on April 6)
A look at figures of coronavirus cases and deaths around the globe
‘So that’s a complicating factor that needs to be thought through.’
Herd immunity is naturally produced overtime, the expert explained, and is not a good public health strategy.
It was suggested by British prime minister Boris Johnson, but the country now has a huge infection rate – with 938 deaths on Wednesday alone.
Australian officials have meanwhile adopted a ‘very responsible’ strategy, that will likely keep death rates low – but leave the virus rumbling on in the community for months.
While on March 28, there were 460 new reported cases, on Thursday it was just 96.
‘Flattening the curve, which we’re doing in Australia as effectively as anyone else has achieved, has the primary purpose not of preventing people from getting the disease – because you can’t do that – but rather of limiting the pressure on health services so that we can treat people who need help,’ he said.
‘And the rapid increase in the number of deaths in Italy, Spain and France and elsewhere has largely occurred because the health services have been overwhelmed.
‘So what we’re trying to do is to reduce the new cases to a relative trickle so we can deal with them.
‘The negative of that is that the timeline is pushed out.
Taped off tables and chairs are seen in a closed cafe in Sydney on March 24 (pictured) after a nationwide shutdown of cafes, restaurants and licensed venues
A policeman is seen talking to a driver at a check point on the Queensland and New South Wales border in Coolangatta on the Gold Coast on April 3 (pictured)
‘If there’s still presence of the disease in the community, then there’ll be a risk that the epidemic will be reactivated.’
This leads to one very possible conclusion, which is that while restrictions could be lifted – it would only be temporarily.
When the number of cases then rose to a certain extent, the lockdown would be bought back in so people can be treated.
‘So in that setting, one of the credible strategies that will need to be considered is whether we relieve the restrictions to some extent,’ he added.
‘And then allow the number of cases to increase to a certain extent, then treat them and clamp down on the restrictions again until such time as we’ve treated the number of people who have become unwell.’
Australians are being fined $1,000 for what would normally be innocent acts. Police are seen gathered at Surfers Paradise Beach on the Gold Coast on April 2
Health minister Greg Hunt on Thursday announced 96 new cases of the disease, the lowest infection rate since strict social distancing measures came into place.
CORONAVIRUS CASES IN AUSTRALIA: 6,105
New South Wales: 2,773
South Australia: 421
Western Australia: 495
Australian Capital Territory: 100
Northern Territory: 28
TOTAL CASES: 6,109
‘This weekend there is good news for Australia, but there is a warning that we can either lock in the gains or lose those gains,’ he told reporters in Canberra.
He added the national cabinet was looking into how restrictions could be relaxed in ‘slow, careful steps’ but told Australians not to get ahead of themselves.
‘This Easter is the time when any Australian can help save a life with their decisions, or inadvertently risk a life,’ he said.
‘We are in this period of consolidation, of suppressing the virus, and we are seeing those results, and the national cabinet is very unified on that.’
There are 260 in hospital, 82 in intensive care and 35 on ventilators, but all those numbers are lower than at the peak.
Mr Hunt said Australians must stay at home over the long weekend to protect lives and give the nation a pathway to navigate the pandemic.
Policemen stop cars at a checkpoint on the Queensland and New South Wales border in the Gold Coast on April 3
An information notice stating the closure of golf courses in Victoria is seen on Friday in Melbourne (pictured), ahead of the Easter weekend
NEW COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS EXPLAINED
Only two people should gather in public spaces and ‘other areas of gathering: Households – no matter how large – can still go outside together, but individual people can only meet with one other person. The two-person limit doesn’t apply to workplaces, schools or households.
Moratorium on evictions from rental properties for the next six months: Scott Morrison said State and Territories will be moving to ban landlords from evicting tenants who are struggling to pay rent. Mr Morrison urged landlords to work with their tenants and banks on immediate solutions.
Playgrounds, skate parks, and outdoor gyms will be closed from Monday: Boot camps will be reduced to one-on-one outdoor personal training sessions.
Australians urged to only shop for the essentials and nothing more: Mr Morrison reminded people it isn’t a time for browsing or catching up with friends. ‘When you are going out for shopping, you should be going for just stuff you need and do it and get home,’ he said.
People aged over 70 or having chronic illnesses are discouraged from leaving their homes: Mr Morrison said elderly people should only go outside for doctor’s appointments or medical reasons. He said vulnerable groups who need help with shopping should access ‘support through their community or others’.
WHAT CAN I LEAVE MY HOUSE FOR?
Buying essential supplies: Scott Morrison said shopping should be done solo and not turned into impromptu gatherings.
Going to work, if unable to work from home: Australians who have the ability to work from home are strongly advised to do so. Those who can’t must follow social distancing measures when at their place of work.
Exercise: People working out should still follow the two-person limit. All boot camps of 10 people or less have effectively been banned.
To attend personal medical appointments, or for compassionate reasons: Elderly people in particular should only go outside for doctor’s appointments or medical reasons.
CAN I VISIT FAMILY MEMBERS?
Yes, however social distancing measures should still be adhered to.
A family split across two houses can meet in private, allowing people to visit their partner, siblings or parents.
People who live can only invite one friend over, while households of two people or more can’t have any visitors.
WHAT ABOUT HOUSEHOLDS WITH MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE?
Households – no matter how large – can still go outside together, but individual people can only meet with one other person.
If four people live together in a house, all four of them can take their dog for a walk.
The two-person limit doesn’t apply to workplaces, schools or households.
CAN OLDER PEOPLE GO OUT IN PUBLIC?
Elderly people are allowed to go outside for the same reasons as young people, but Scott Morrison has urged those over the age of 70 to self-isolate unless going to a medical appointment.
‘This does not mean they cannot go outside,’ Mr Morrison said on Sunday.
‘They can go outside and be accompanied by a support person for the purposes of getting fresh air and recreation, but should limit contact with others as much as possible.’
CAN I GO TO A WEDDING OR A FUNERAL?
Last week’s rules pertaining to weddings and funerals haven’t changed.
Funerals are still limited to 10 people and weddings to five – including the officiator and the bride and groom.
WHEN DO THE NEW MEASURES COME INTO EFFECT?
The two-person rule will begin on Monday, while playgrounds, outdoor gyms and skate parks will be closed at midday.