Australia

Could Australia's coronavirus restrictions really be relaxed in a few weeks?

A sign at St Kilda beach in Melbourne. Source: AAP

The federal government says it will review social restrictions in "the next few weeks", but health experts warn it may be too soon to relax or lift them then.

Australia's so-called coronavirus infection rate curve is continuing to flatten, but experts are warning against complacency, with some saying it is far too early to consider any relaxation of social restrictions.

On Monday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia's case fatality rate was "one of the lowest in the world" but cautioned "we are not immune from the iron laws of the disease".

So, what are the chances of restrictions on venue closures, gatherings and social distancing being relaxed any time soon? 

Good signs

The federal government says it is "actively planning the road out" of COVID-19 restrictions.

Easter travel was at only 13 per cent of its usual levels across the country, which helped contribute to reduced rates of new infections - the so-called flattening of the curve.

A near-deserted Sydney Opera House forecourt.
A near-deserted Sydney Opera House forecourt.
AAP

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian spoke last week of assessing the laws on a month-by-month basis, but has also warned that lifting restrictions would come with a risk.

Every time you relax a restriction more people will get sick, more people will die," she said.

"It's a horrible situation to be in but they're the choices, they're the options, and we need to be very upfront about that."

Is lifting restrictions a possibility?

UNSW adjunct professor Bill Bowtell, a strategic health policy consultant, believes not.

"I understand entirely that people want to believe it's over, or that it's at the end. But it's not," he told SBS News. 

"We've let it in, we've got six-and-a-half-thousand cases, we've got a regrettable number of deaths.

Professor Bill Bowtell.
Professor Bill Bowtell says restrictions shouldn't be relaxed anytime soon.
Supplied

"And if we relax vigilance and we just declare that it's all over, or looking good, that would be the greatest single piece of good news you could give to the virus."

Professor Bowtell warns that any decisions on loosening restrictions must be made extremely carefully.

"If people relax restrictions without taking policy based on science and evidence and facts - and what's happening in other countries who are also gingerly trying to figure this out - we would be very, very foolish to do that," he said.

Are the current restrictions working, though?

In short, yes.

The strict social restrictions are designed to slow down the virus's spread, rather than totally eliminate it.

Lifeguards try to remove surfers from a Sydney beach.
Lifeguards try to remove surfers from a Sydney beach.
AAP

Social distancing and restrictions on gatherings have had a serious, positive effect on case numbers, while the halt on international travel - and therefore imported cases of COVID-19 - is also being reflected in the lessening case numbers.

Could we be doing more? 

Again, yes, if we wanted to. 

New Zealand is in near-total lockdown and is trying to eradicate the virus completely - a different approach to Australia's containment strategy.

Like Australia, New Zealand's case numbers are also falling.

Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy believes Australia could consider taking on an elimination strategy, but that, too, comes with challenges. 

"It's certainly one of the potential strategic options to consider," Dr Murphy said.

"The challenge with elimination is that nobody yet knows whether it's possible.

"We don't know to what extent there's asymptomatic transmission of this virus.

"We know that there's evidence that a number of people can get the virus with such mild symptoms that they may never present for testing."

Moving to an elimination strategy, though, would mean more social restrictions rather than a relaxation of them.

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When can we expect restrictions to be lifted?

Professor Murphy says authorities won't consider easing distancing restrictions until they are confident the public health system can deal with the "inevitable increase in infections" that would follow, but that Australia is pretty close to being able to do that.

But Professor Bowtell doesn't believe that "inevitable infections" should be tolerated.

Brendan Murphy
Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy speaks to the media in Canberra.
AAP Image/Lukas Coch

He cites Austria as an example of a country that has suppressed the virus well enough to be considering relaxing its social restrictions. Even then, he said, masks will be required to be worn in public and social distancing will still be ruthlessly imposed, in order to prevent any community transmission.

"But I don't think Austria, or anywhere else, is thinking, for example, of allowing crowds to congregate in football stadiums or religious observance or anywhere where we used to be shoulder-to-shoulder with people," he said.

"That's not on the agenda anywhere. And why would it be? Such a thing can only help the virus do its work."

What is the next step? 

The World Health Organization has urged countries to take a measured approach and to closely monitor outcomes and make adjustments before moving to each next step of easing restrictions.

With so many countries at different stages of dealing with COVID-19 it's hard to know which are taking the best approach.

Only a vaccine can bring COVID-19 to an end.

"People should be under no illusion that this is a story that has a beginning, a middle, and a happy ending, necessarily," Professor Bowtell said.

"That can only come if, and when, there is a vaccine developed for that. And that's a big if."

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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