When we will know that social distancing measures are working

It will take about 10 days to see if Australia’s strictest coronavirus social distancing laws have made any difference, professors at the University of Melbourne say.

At midnight on Monday, states and territories enforced Scott Morrison’s announcement that gatherings are now limited to two people while people can only leave their home for essential trips.

On average, it takes seven days from the introduction of restrictions to see a change, plus a buffer period of up to three days for sick people to get tested, Professor Tony Blakely, Dr Laxman Bablani and Dr Patrick Andersen explained in commentary on the university’s Pursuit site.

People line up outside the Royal Melbourne Hosital for coronavirus testing in Melbourne, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AAP Image/David Crosling) NO ARCHIVING
Dozens of people queue for a COVID-19 test in Melbourne. Source: AAP

Based on their modelling, Australia may only expect to see a change in the number of coronavirus cases by next Thursday, April 9.

Effects for the earlier restrictions, where bars and cafes were closed on March 23, should have begun showing results as of yesterday.

On Thursday, cases across Australia exceeded 5000, however the daily increase in numbers have plateaued at about 380 cases, after exponential growth for 10 days prior to March 24.

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Australian National University infectious diseases expert Professor Peter Collignon agreed any change would come into effect after 10 days, and while he told The Guardian initial indications suggested the increase in cases was reducing, he would wait a week to cast any judgement.

He also said the numbers will likely have been skewed by overseas arrivals, Australians returning home and a full ban on foreign visitors.

Prof Blakely explained it would take a further 11 days to see whether a change has had an effect on the availability of ICU beds, due to a five-day delay of symptoms and a further six if someone was to become seriously ill.

States across Australia have been tirelessly working to increase ICU capacity in the event of a surge in cases, while keeping a close eye on the events unfolding in Europe where several countries’ health systems have been completely overwhelmed.

Prof Blakely explained the challenge facing the government, its health experts and scientists aiding the fight is “not easy”, and while all of their collective experience is of great worth, none have faced such a pandemic where these current restrictive measures have been used and therefore how much of an effect they will have is still relatively unclear.

“This is the extraordinarily challenging task of our politicians, chief medical officers and scientists.” he said.

“Think of our current measures against COVID-19 like being at the back of an oil tanker and steering it with the rudder of your two-person dinghy.

“It takes patience for the bow of the oil tanker (in our case, the daily numbers of COVID-19 infections) to slowly turn.

“Until we have a bit of experience, we don’t really know how much the oil tanker will turn (with a lag) as a result of a nudge versus a panicked throwing of the rudder.”

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