The Australian Government has set a four-week goal to achieve surveillance, tracing and response milestones if social distancing measures are to be eased, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasises there will be "sobering" economic news along the way.
While 63 people have lost their lives so far to Covid-19 in Australia and a further 43 are battling for their lives with the virus on ventilators, our citizens can take comfort in encouraging trends for the virus here relative to the rest of the world.
New daily case rates have been below 50 for several days, and on average every case that is mitigated and controlled has led to less than one additional reported infection.
This is known as the effective reproduction rate (ERR) and right now it is where authorities want it to be - except for Tasmania which has seen a slight uptick due to a local outbreak in the state's northwest.
In a press conference today, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy pointed to a modelling paper from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that concluded Australia had the highest symptomatic case detection rate of any country studied.
Meanwhile, the PM noted more than half of those who have contracted the coronavirus in Australia have actually overcome it, which is also positive news.
But all of these achievements would amount to very little if we lost sight of how vulnerable the health situation, and subsequently the economy, could be to any lapse in our systems and behaviour.
"We need to hold our performance in relation to the effective reproduction rate, and we are looking at that by state - that is the most important way to look at how we're tracking in relation to those statistics," Morrison said.
"If you move too early, and the health response gets out of control, then the economic consequences will be even worse.
"We were advised today that markets are finding a new normal in this Covid-19 world but that new normal and that relative stability - and everything's relative now - will depend very much on continuing to achieve a stable health outcome."
As the country works towards this objective, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) advised National Cabinet today of important benchmarks to guide decisions on the easing of restrictions "when that is deemed possible". The PM summarised these guidelines in three main parts:
- A more extensive surveillance/sentinel testing regime that goes beyond just including people who are symptomatic to Covid-19;
- Ensuring there is greater tracing capability than at present, including automated functions. A tracing app similar to Singapore's that is still being refined is likely to play a key role in this; and
- Boosting local response capability so that authorities can move quickly to contain any outbreak.
While these are the three key aspects of the triggers, the National Cabinet has agreed to seven precedent conditions overall:
- Situational awareness of current measures and their impact - sophisticated surveillance of disease incidence and spread, health system status, public health capabilities, stocks of material and community adherence to public health measures.
- Finalised surveillance plan - enabled with adequate resources.
- A better understanding of the implications of the modelling and a better understanding of the characteristics and transmission of the virus.
- Complete maturation of public health capacity - including capacity to conduct testing more broadly; and public health workforce and technology for contact tracing, data collection and analysis.
- Advanced technology for contact tracing - the role of a mobile phone application should be wholly explored, as it could be a valuable tool in contact tracing if numbers increase and the application is widely taken up. This would act to complement and augment our current public health contact tracing strategies and enable scale-back strategies.
- Assurance of adequate health system capacity - should control measures fail, there must be assurance that the system will cope with any surge in cases, including the requirement for hospital beds, ventilators, PPE and ongoing workforce training.
- Assurance of supply lines for - PPE, pathology consumables, ventilators.
"There will be other outbreaks in other parts of the country, and in all states and territories we need that ability to move very fast, to be able to lock down an outbreak where it occurs, and to ensure that it does not transmit more broadly within the community," Morrison said.
"[If] You're going to move to an environment where there are fewer and strict restrictions, then you need these three things in place, and National Cabinet agreed today that we will use the next four weeks to ensure that we can get these in place.
"And the baseline restrictions that have been set some weeks ago, will remain in place until we're able to achieve those three goals. We'll be reviewing that in the next four weeks."
Once these three conditions have been reached, the Federal, State and Territory governments will be able to work on opening up "high-value, low-risk economic activities".
"The six month timeframe gives us a ticking clock basically on this lifeline and it gives us a clear goal to work towards to ensure that we find that road out with these restrictions eased ideally," the PM said.
Under this scenario, he said the goal was for the economy to "lift to a level of activity where people's wages and incomes can be supported again" so they do not need to rely on JobKeeper or JobSeeker payments; both six-month plans he confirmed would be in place until the end of the September quarter.
"That's the timeframe that we have bought through those economic supports, so you've got to work backwards from there. There will be I imagine baseline levels of restrictions that will be changed over that period of time."
The PM also pointed to a positive sentiment towards Australian bonds, with $28 billion raised by the Australian Office of Financial Management since 20 March, including a $13 billion syndicated offer yesterday.
"This should give Australians a sense of assurance and confidence...we have been successful in raising those funds on markets - some 68 per cent of this latest syndicated offer was from domestic investors and that was dominated by banks.
"We are finding ourselves in a situation where Australia's bond issuances have been well received, and that is because of the relative strength and the relative the positive impression that markets have in relation to Australia."
Updated at 4:40pm AEST on 16 April 2020.
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