Australia may succeed in eliminating the coronavirus despite not introducing a full lockdown, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says.
Mr Morrison told reporters during a press conference on Thursday that eliminating the virus could be a “by-product” of the suppression approach the government was taking.
“That could happen,” he said.
Australia’s new infection numbers are now below 50 cases per day, and modelling revealed by the PM showed most states had pushed their effective reproduction number (R0) below one, which means for every person infected they are infecting less than one other person.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told reporters it was “quite possible” Australia could eradicate COVID-19 in parts of the country.
“Some states have had no cases for some days and small numbers of cases all imported,” he said.
“We are on the same trajectory as New Zealand, which is heading for elimination, and if we achieve complete lack of transmission and no cases, that would be great.”
Prof Murphy said there was not a lot of difference between an aggressive suppression strategy and an eradication strategy, with the exception that “we don’t feel the need to hold the country very seriously in lockdown until we have no cases”.
“But if that happens with the measures we are doing now, that would be fantastic.”
ELIMINATION IS NOT A ‘WISE TRADE-OFF’
Australia is taking a “suppression” approach aimed at flattening the curve and reducing infections to a low level rather than trying to get them to zero. The disadvantage of this approach is that lockdowns could be in place indefinitely, until a vaccine is developed, unlike elimination, which would allow life to return to normal in the country once there were no new virus cases.
Some experts have been pushing for Australia to aim towards eliminating the virus, something that New Zealand is trying to do.
New Zealand has introduced strict “Level 4” measures that include closing schools and all businesses except for supermarkets, pharmacies and other essential services.
This has seen its new infections drop to below 20 per day.
However, the Prime Minister has ruled out pursuing an elimination strategy as it would be too costly to the economy.
“The eradication pathway involves an approach which will see even more economic restrictions than are currently in place,” Mr Morrison said.
“That is not seen to be, in our view, a wise trade-off in how we are managing the two crises that we are facing: the economic one and of course the health one.
“We are doing well on the health one and I want to do that on the economic one.”
Mr Morrison said Australia’s suppression strategy “sat well” with Australia’s ethos and how people lived. He noted that the current restrictions were already “rubbing at the edges” of some in the community.
“We like our freedoms, we like to be able to do what we want to do. We like having a barbecue, we like going out and we really miss it and we miss our kids being able to get together and go to school and be with their friends,” he said.
“The suppression path is the best Australian path. The solutions we are putting in place are the right solutions for Australia. We are not looking to copy anyone. We have the right plan
Despite having a population about five times that of New Zealand, Australia’s own rate of new infections has also dropped to under 50 per day compared to under 20 for the Kiwi’s.
‘UNLIKELY’ THAT ELIMINATION WILL SUCCEED
Professor Michael Baker of the University of Otago in New Zealand told A Current Affair he believes Australia could adopt New Zealand’s strategy of elimination as it would allow life to go back to normal more quickly.
“It’s not business as usual, but it’s a lot better than the alternative,” he said.
“Rather than the pandemic determining our future, we will be in control of our future, if we can eliminate this virus.”
Prof Baker pointed to Taiwan’s success in bringing down its cases to only about 400, in a population of 20 million.
“Asian countries have shown that we can actually eliminate this,” Prof Baker said.
“Once you have no circulating virus in your population – which is pretty close to the situation in Australia and New Zealand – then you can gradually relax your restrictions.”
However, Australian National University infectious diseases physician Peter Collignon points out that no one in the world has actually eliminated the virus, not even Taiwan or Korea, which both still had low numbers of cases.
“I actually think it’s unlikely we’ll eradicate it,” Prof Collignon told news.com.au.
He said many people only got a mild form of the disease and their infections were often not detected.
“So you always have low numbers below the radar that are waiting to pop up again,” he said.
Prof Collignon said the number of new cases in New Zealand and Australia were very similar, showing that Australia had actually done better with less restrictions.
“The evidence is that New Zealand’s strategy isn’t any better than Australia’s but it’s been much more disruptive to the economy and society,” he said.
However, Prof Collignon also isn’t a fan of the approach taken in Sweden, which has more relaxed restrictions but a higher death rate.
So far about 1203 people have died in Sweden, compared to 63 deaths in Australia.
This equals about a death rate of 118 per million inhabitants in Sweden, compared to about 2 per million in Australia.
“I actually think that is a concern,” Prof Collignon said. “But equally the other extreme in New Zealand, has been destructive to the economy and people’s feeling of social isolation.”
THE PATH TOWARDS EASING RESTRICTIONS
Despite not supporting it, Prof Collignon said New Zealand’s approach was useful because it helped Australia to understand the benefits or otherwise of a full lockdown.
Prof Collignon said Australia should instead be looking to countries like Korea and Taiwan for guidance, as they had managed to gain control of the virus during their winter months.
“I think Australia is closest to Korea and we should learn from Korea rather than New York or London, where infections are out of control,” he said.
Korea has less strict restrictions — it has not stopped people from going to work — but instead ramped up its testing very quickly and also uses technology to track cases using credit card records, GPS and security camera footage.
Most residents are also practising social distancing and wearing face masks.
Mr Morrison already appears to be moving towards some of these measures, indicating during his press conference that Australia would seek to improve its tracking of cases and testing.
The Prime Minister said current baseline restrictions would stay in place for at least four weeks and would only be lifted once three goals were achieved.
This included a more extensive testing regime that would identify those who were asymptomatic, greater tracing capability that would involve using technology to track people, and improved local response capability to contain outbreaks.
“National cabinet agreed today we will use the next four weeks, to make sure we can get these in place,” Mr Morrison said.
“The baseline restrictions that have been set, some weeks ago, will remain in place until we can achieve those three goals.”
He noted that measures like the tracking Australians would need community support but it would give authorities more options and Australians more freedoms.
Prof Collignon said the bottom line was that Australians were not going to have “zero risk” of being infected.
“We’ve got to make the risk as low as possible with minimal collateral damage to people’s livelihoods and mental stability,” he said.
“We’ve got to do this probably for six months to two years — and that’s if a safe vaccine becomes available.
“We’ve got to have a long-term strategy and learn from others and learn from our data.
“We’ve got to change based on what data shows is a better approach and that will change with time.”
By Charis Chang