Australia should “finish the job” of getting to zero cases of COVID-19 transmission in a New Zealand-style strategy that would leave the country better off and help protect 10 million vulnerable people.
That’s according to a new Grattan Institute report entitled Go For Zero by former federal Department of Health secretary Stephen Duckett published overnight.
The report says Victoria should only ease restrictions once it reaches only 20 new cases a day.
It says Victoria, NSW, and Queensland could eliminate the virus if Victoria endured another eight weeks of lockdown.
“Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and the ACT have already reached, and so far maintained, zero community transmission,” the report states.
“For the other states, a calibrated response depending on the number of new cases is the best approach.
“Victoria should ease restrictions only when new cases are below 20 a day. Victoria, NSW, and Queensland should ease restrictions further when new cases are below five, and again at zero.
“To maintain zero cases there must be effective quarantining of all international arrivals. States must ramp up testing. Contact tracing must be quicker and more efficient, so any cases that sneak through can be jumped on.
“Continuing restrictions for the states with COVID-19 will mean more short-term pain; but the payoff will be greater freedom on the other side.
“Getting to zero means life can return to closer to normal, with a substantially reduced risk of future outbreaks.”
Mr Duckett claims tolerating a low level of community transmission risks generating “future outbreaks, reimposed lockdowns, renewed economic disruption, and more deaths.”
“Having come this far, we should finish the job” he said.
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Australia has seen more than 26,000 cases of coronavirus with 678 deaths since the virus was first recorded in the country in late January.
Currently state borders remain largely closed, with harsh restrictions in place in Melbourne after the virus emerged from the mismanaged hotel quarantine system in the city.
However as lockdowns have dragged on and following news the country has plunged into recession this week with a seven per cent contraction of GDP, debate is growing about what level of lockdown should remain in place and at what economic cost.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made it clear he wants to see state borders open by Christmas to mark a resumption of economic activity and free movement.
However Mr Duckett argued lockdowns are a “classic case of short-term pain for long-term gain.”
“Getting cases down to zero, and keeping them there, will be hard work – but it will save lives and enable the economy to recover more quickly. Allowing the virus to run free, as suggested by some commentators and business advocates, would be deadly.”
While NSW has been praised for an aggressive contact tracing strategy that has kept cases low, the report claims it’s “dangerous” as it risks a larger breakout that could lead to a yo-yo style system of locking down and reopening.
“Instead, NSW, Queensland, and Victoria – the epicentre of Australia’s second wave – should set out to drive community cases down to zero. Victoria could get to zero by the end of October, but only if the vast majority of the population adheres to strict social distancing measures.”
Mr Duckett argues a “let it rip” strategy provides freedom for some but would lead to more restrictions for around 10 million Aussies deemed vulnerable.
“For people in these groups, their risk of death or severe morbidity may be more than twice the rest of the population and increases their overall death rate significantly.”
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Whether Australia should adopt a suppression strategy or opt for outright elimination has been a subject of debate for months. While New Zealand went for outright elimination, European nations have allowed the virus to circulate at a low level without locking down, but fears of a second wave in the northern autumn remain in place.
Australia first opted to “flatten the curve” of the virus and later updated this to claim a suppression strategy was in place that involved zero community transmission.
Mr Duckett said the Morrison Government’s response has been “inadequate” and now is to the time to “go for zero, because the pay-off will be worth it.”
While New Zealand’s recent outbreak after 102 days with zero community transmission shows the virus can never be fully eliminated, the report said the ability of the Ardern government to quickly ramp up testing helped them get on top of the spread.
“Continuing restrictions for the states with COVID-19 will mean more short-term pain; but the pay-off will be greater freedom on the other side,” he wrote.
“Getting to zero means life can return to closer to normal, with a substantially reduced risk of future outbreaks. Zero is in our sights; now is the time to finish the job.”