Chief Minister Andrew Barr says there are currently eight known cases of coronavirus in the ACT. (ABC News: Tom Lowrey)
Within a fortnight, the ACT may achieve an immense feat.
It could become Australia’s first jurisdiction to record zero active cases of COVID-19 within its borders.
Of the 104 cases of coronavirus confirmed in the ACT, three people have died and 93 have recovered.
With no evidence of community transmission in Canberra, international travel ground to a halt and domestic travel severely restricted, it’s likely zero known active cases could be achieved in weeks.
For ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, it’s a milestone worth celebrating.
But he points out it is not the end, and it does not mean the end is even in sight.
“It means, hopefully, some easing of the quite significant restrictions that have been put in place,” Barr says.
“But then also we need to be cautious, because we still don’t know enough about this particular virus and where it might go next.”
The ACT is living under a similar regime of restrictions as the rest of Australia: restaurants, gyms, pubs, beauticians and more businesses are closed, and gatherings of more than two people are banned.
But the rules in Canberra are not quite as tight as places like Sydney and Melbourne, with no official ban on “non-essential” travel and two people at a time allowed to visit a home.
Barr says that, as the situation improves, and attention turns to easing restrictions, there will be flexibility for the ACT to take some steps ahead of other states and territories.
What might change, and when?
While zero active cases is an important milestone, it must be seen to last.
An important threshold to cross is two weeks with zero active cases, which would provide a much greater level of confidence that the virus has been properly suppressed.
Communal exercising, at least in small groups, may be one of the first steps in relaxing restrictions. (ABC News)
The most likely early easing of restrictions would be around public gatherings, going from a maximum of two people back up to 10.
That would allow things like small family gatherings, and even fitness “boot camps” in outdoor spaces, to resume.
Barr says it is the simplest move to make in the short term.
“Smaller family gatherings and smaller gatherings outdoors … are relatively low-risk in an environment where there are no active cases in the ACT for a two-week period,” he says.
“And even more so where there could be no active cases in Australia for a two-week period.”
This move is likely to be considered not only by the ACT but by the national cabinet mid-next month, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison has flagged.
Much larger gatherings — like a return to public events like Floriade — are considerably further off.
Mooseheads, usually a busy pub and nightclub in Canberra, is boarded up in wait of the epidemic’s end. (Twitter: @DavidSharaz)
And even if the ACT were in a position to safely reopen restaurants, pubs and bars with social-distancing measures in place, there is an extra concern.
The ACT’s borders will remain open — and Barr says such a move would create a “pull factor”, drawing in visitors from New South Wales for a night out.
“Were we to reopen bars and restaurants, but they remained closed in NSW, then we would get quite an influx of people into the territory and that would lead to an increased risk,” he says.
He says while the ACT hopes to be in a position, in the months ahead, to allow more activity to take place, health authorities are cautious about the possibility of a “second wave”.
“The biggest challenge is, if we significantly loosen restrictions and then cases take off again, we may find ourselves having to lock back down, and maybe even more severely,” he says.
So for pubs, bars and restaurants to reopen, the ACT would probably have to move with NSW.
It’s likely the one-person-per-four-square-metres rule would come back with it, too.
Concerns over silent pockets of the virus
Eliminating all known cases of COVID-19 in the ACT is undoubtedly a positive milestone, but epidemiologists and political leaders agree that unknown cases remain a concern.
It’s considered likely that the virus will remain in Canberra, silently transmitted among people who might not show symptoms or be aware that they have it.
There is still no actual evidence of community transmission in the city, and testing criteria will be expanded from today in a renewed effort to find it.
But Professor Mark Daniel, an epidemiologist from the University of Canberra, says it’s worth assuming that the disease is there.
“Value can be placed in the notion of zero active cases, because it means that confirmed cases have been reduced through treatment and prevention,” he says.
“So this is a positive phenomenon, but we need to remember that there are many active cases out there in the community.
“Those cases are out there, and they’re actively fighting off the virus.”
But Professor Daniel says that is not an argument against the restrictions that have been put in place to date, which have been “very successful”.
For him, the task now is relaxing restrictions in a strategic manner to protect particularly vulnerable people — and avoid a much-feared second wave of cases emerging.
Reopening schools, for example, would be an option — but certainly not nursing homes.
“Social distancing remains important for vulnerable populations, older people, immuno-compromised people,” he says.
“Social distancing for people less than 60 might be considered for relaxing.”
Canberra’s formerly tightly packed light rail vehicles were mostly empty on the transport system’s first birthday. (ABC News: Michael Black)
The virus is a problem we must live with
Barr warns that, even if some restrictions are eased in the weeks and months ahead, life is a long way from returning to normal.
While trials on a vaccine are beginning, any roll-out is a long way off, and precautions must remain in place, he says.
“I’m still left with a long-term concern that we are, as a community, going to have to learn to live with this virus as a long-term reality of life,” Mr Barr says.
“Just as we have had to learn to live with HIV, with seasonal flu, with polio, with measles, with a whole range of other medical and health challenges that successive generations of humans have had to deal with.
“And this one might not go away easily. We may have to live with it in the long term.”
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