How Australia could look in four weeks if coronavirus restrictions are relaxed

Despite the government potentially lifting coronavirus restrictions in Australia next month, it’s not expected we’ll go straight back to life as we know it.

An epidemiology expert has warned it will likely take a vaccine for life to return to normal and in the meantime restrictions will be lifted gradually and slowly.

A passenger wearing a protective mask and gloves waiting for a flight at Sydney Domestic Airport.
Coronavirus restrictions will be likely lifted gradually, an expert says. Source: AAP

“I think the government has chosen to go down a route that’s called the suppression approach,” Dr James Trauer, from Monash University’s Epidemiological Modelling Unit, told Yahoo News Australia.

“That means we are going to try and limit the number of cases and limit its spread, not necessarily get rid of the virus from Australia.

“If we were to lift lockdown and go back to what we were doing last year we are faced with exponential spread as long as we haven’t completely eliminated it.”

The curve is flattening in Australia by what is effectively a lockdown, where public gatherings are limited to two; restaurants, cafes and bars are limited to takeaway only; and people can only leave their homes for limited reasons or face the prospect of hefty on-the-spot fines.

But when exactly will things return to normal?

Travellers adhere to social-distancing rules as they check in for their flights at the Sydney International Airport.
Social-distancing measures are expected to remain in place as lockdown restrictions are relaxed. Source: AAP

How will the lockdown be lifted?

Dr Trauer said it wouldn’t necessarily be the case where the last rule implemented would be the first to be lifted.

Instead the government will have to deem what activities will help stimulate society and the economy.

“I suspect what the government will do will gradually lift restrictions and make sure the spread stays under control and doesn’t increase,” he said.

“We’ll gradually be lifting some restrictions and seeing how many can be lifted before we see an increase in spread – that’s how I see the suppression approach unfolding.”

Dr Trauer said the government would have to consider two things when lifting lockdown – the risk of transmission and the importance of a particular activity.

“We shouldn’t disregard what is important for society and the economy, but part of the calculation as well is how much transmission that particular activity would generate,” he said.

“The activities that are more important and least likely to increase transmission will be lifted first.”

What will change as lockdown is lifted?

Social distancing

Dr Trauer said some practices already being undertaken by Australians that were easy to continue would likely not change.

“With no-brainer things like regular hand washing and minimising unnecessary contact like not shaking hands – there’s no reason why we wouldn’t continue on with those easy things,” he said.

Childcare centres and schools

Any restrictions on childcare centres and schools would be the first to be relaxed, Dr Trauer predicted.

“The prime minister already said he wants schools to be opened across the country. Different states have made their own decisions but that will be a logical next thing to relax – partly because children are not an important player in perpetuating the pandemic and cases are low in schools,” he said.

“Most importantly, education in children is one of the most critical activities that takes place in our society.”

Working from home

Dr Trauer said people still may be required to work from home depending on how critical it was they interact with people at work.

Working from home is another part of the restrictions that will likely be reduced gradually.

“Something that has to be done in person is healthcare and delivery. It will be a judgement call when reopening other workplaces,” he said.

Bars, cafes and restaurants

The restrictions on bars, cafes and restaurants will be some of the last to be lifted, Dr Trauer predicts.

“These may be activities we think are important, but it won’t be possible to have them reinstated or up and running again until we have a vaccine,” he said.

“With a suppression response the possibility is we won’t be able to do those things until a vaccine is available.”

Customers wait for takeaway meals next to roped-off dining tables as restaurants only cater for takeaway in Sydney on March 26, 2020, due to restrictions to stop the spread of the worldwide COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
It will likely be some time before restrictions are lifted for bars, restaurants and cafes. Source: Getty Images

Large gatherings

Dr Trauer said it would be a matter of gradually lifting restrictions and seeing what happens with the transmission of the virus.

“Maybe we can’t take it that far under a suppression approach,” he said.

“There is the possibility of some form of lockdown all the way through until we have a vaccine.”

Dr Trauer said the suppression approach was a reasonable start to lifting the lockdown, but just because this is the pathway currently chosen doesn’t mean we can’t try alternatives.

“If it doesn’t work and it’s evident the degree of lockdown is so extreme people can’t tolerate it, and it’s not compatible with a functioning society and economy, then we can revisit it. But the safest route at this stage is to come back to other alternatives if this one doesn’t work,” he said.

The dangers of lifting restrictions at once

Dr Trauer said not much would have changed in a month in terms of the number of cases and rate of infections, but the government needed to have all systems in place to insure low-grade transmission.

“We will still have the issue of the large majority of the population susceptible so there’s still the risk of exponential growth if we go totally back to the way we were,” he said.

The inside of a public bus is seen empty, after an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Sydney.
Numbers on public transport in Sydney have drastically reduced due to the pandemic. Source: AAP

“There are different pathways you could take [when lifting the suppression] but we can’t go back to life before the pandemic unless we have a vaccine.

“As long as the entire population is susceptible we’re still in a fragile situation.”

Leaders hint at lockdown easing

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has revealed the three steps we need to take before we can relax tight restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr Morrison said Australia had made real progress over the past month getting the virus under control.

He said there were now three steps that needed to be put in place before restrictions would be loosened, which would happen in four weeks at the earliest.

Mr Morrison announced a more extensive surveillance and testing regime needed to be put in place before the government would consider lifting restrictions.

Medical professionals are seen performing COVID-19 tests on members of the public at the Bondi Beach drive-through coronavirus testing centre.
A medical professional performs a COVID-19 tests at a drive-thru testing facility in Bondi. Source: AAP

He said Australia would also need to implement better tracing capability and the federal government will release an app in the next fortnight using Bluetooth connections to track down people who have come in contact with others carrying the deadly disease.

The prime minister said Australia would also need to isolate outbreak clusters to ensure the coronavirus did not transmit more broadly within the community.

On Monday, Queensland recorded zero coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period for the first time in 42 days. Western Australia also achieved its first day of no new cases in over a month.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the landmark moment suggested if the state could maintain such low figures, restrictions could be lifted “over the coming weeks”.

Victoria reported just one new case and Premier Daniel Andrews said there were some areas where the state might be able to make changes around the way people interact with others.

“I want to make it clear though that the notion that pubs are open any time soon, restaurants, bars, cafes, I don’t think that will be the case,” he said.

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