Four more criteria to be achieved before social distancing measures relaxed

National Cabinet will consider easing some of Australia’s strict social distancing measures a week earlier than expected, meeting next Friday to discuss if it’s safe to take a step back towards normal life.

But the outcome will depend on four conditions.

At a press conference in Canberra today, Scott Morrison revealed the country was in line for “an early mark” thanks to successes on several fronts in tackling fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

And the Prime Minister revealed that 11 out of 15 requirements for relaxing restrictions had now been met, meaning there’s a little work to be done in the coming seven days.

Mr Morrison was tight-lipped on what some of those regained freedoms might be, but he said that “all” measures would be reviewed.

“We need to restart our economy, we need to restart our society,” Mr Morrison said. “We can’t keep Australia under the doona.

“People will be very familiar with the full range of restrictions that were put in place some weeks ago. And they’re all obviously being reviewed.”

The review of measures was being conducted in terms of both health mitigation strategies and economic considerations, Mr Morrison said.

“That’s the basis on which the assessment will be made. So, I’m not going to second-guess that process.”

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Chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, said 15 requirements for relaxing restrictions had been set at the outset of the crisis.

Eleven of them have been achieved, including community adherence to public health messages, the adequacy of health workforces, the capacity of health systems to cope with case surges, and drug and other consumable stocks, to name a few.

But there are four criteria that still need some work, Prof Murphy said.

These are the capacity for increased testing, state and territory infection surveillance plans and resources, stocks of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, and the take-up of the COVIDsafe app.

The Australian Health Principal Protection Committee (AHPPC), the expert medical panel that’s guiding decision-making, provided a status update with more detail.

These are the four precedents that still need to be worked on.

1. Sophisticated surveillance of disease incidence and spread

Surveillance mechanisms are well established in jurisdictions, with planned expansion of disease surveillance and testing. Testing has already been expanded to include those with acute respiratory illness.

Serosurveillance (testing of antibodies in the blood) is a longer term goal, and requires further funding and consideration.

2. Finalise surveillance plan

Must be wholly enabled with adequate resources. The Australian National Disease Surveillance Plan for COVID-19 has been developed and will continue to be updated.

Resources, including funding, still need to be secured for parts of the plan to be enacted.

3. Stocks of personal protective equipment (gowns and globes)

Status of all holdings of gowns and gloves in the States and Territories requires confirmation.

Further modelling, and an assessment on the security of supply lines are needed.

4. Technology for contact tracing, data collection and analysis

The COVIDSafe App was launched on 27 April 2020, with significant uptake within the first 24 hours. Details regarding jurisdictional access/use of the data are currently being developed.

Mr Morrison said some 3.5 million Australians had downloaded the app, which logs people’s prolonged and close interaction with others, allowing healthcare workers to instantly trace contacts of someone infected.

That number is still too low to satisfy medical experts and the PM encouraged everyone to download the app.

“Of those (criteria) that remain outstanding, there is one that Australians can do something about, and that is downloading the COVIDSafe app,” he said.

“This is a critical issue for National Cabinet when it comes to making decisions next Friday about how restrictions can be eased.

“The coronavirus is still out there. Our numbers may be low, but it’s still out there. And if we allow Australians back out into a more open economy, a more open environment … we need that tool so that we can open up the economy.”

If National Cabinet is satisfied next Friday that restrictions can be eased, it’s unclear if reopening Australia’s pubs and bars will be one of the things considered.

Mr Morrison was asked by a reporter the question that many Australians want an answer to – when might the pubs reopen?

“The first step to getting back to that is downloading COVIDsafe,” he said.

“If that isn’t an incentive for people to download COVIDsafe on a Friday, then I don’t know what is. That is a prerequisite to even get into that conversation.”

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