Some country towns believe there’s a case to ease restrictions sooner. (ABC News: Erik Havnen)
Regional Australians say isolation rules introduced to slow the spread of coronavirus should be lifted from their communities first because there is less risk of COVID-19 spreading.
But the National Rural Health Commissioner has rejected the idea, saying no-one wants to see small towns treated like “guinea pigs”.
- In many regional and rural towns, frustration with social-distancing rules is growing
- The Government’s top rural health expert rejects suggestions of lifting restrictions in areas with low case numbers first
- Others caution that health services and hospitals in the bush have less capacity to deal with outbreaks
“Just because you live in a rural town, doesn’t mean you have any greater immunity to COVID-19. It doesn’t respect geography,” Professor Paul Worley said.
“Now is not the time to start being fancy with changes.
“You can end up playing catch-up, and when you play catch-up, people die.”
Rural Health Commissioner, Dr Paul Worley has slapped down the possibility of coronavirus restrictions being eased in country areas first. (ABC News)
But in towns like Mildura, six hours north-west of Melbourne, frustration with social-distancing rules is growing.
“We basically just get city laws forced upon us,” local councillor Glenn Milne said.
“It’s one size fits all in Victoria, almost always to the detriment of people in the regions.”
In New South Wales, Collie publican Tom Hancock is longing to start pouring beers again for the 200 locals who live in and around his town.
“There’s been a hell of a lot of stress because, in a farming area, a lot of local people still need to use the pub as a hub,” Mr Hancock said.
“I completely understand all the precautions the authorities are taking, but I don’t think easing restrictions would bring too much of a risk compared to places like Sydney.
“When there’s nothing happening out here, why aren’t we open now?”
Infection rate comparatively low
The Commonwealth’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, acknowledged there might be merit in the argument, given most coronavirus cases had involved international or returning overseas travellers, mainly in cities.
“Rural, regional and particularly remote Australia has been relatively protected,” he said.
“So for those people to take on this burden of social-distancing measures, and the business restrictions entailed, could be seen as not proportionate to their risk.”
But Dr Kelly cautioned that health services and hospitals in the bush had less capacity to deal with outbreaks, especially given the lack of ventilators and intensive-care beds.
“So I think it’s reasonable for us to wait a bit longer to really protect those healthcare assets in those places and to protect the communities.”
Rural health experts pleased with progress
John Hall, president of the Rural Doctors Association, said his “worst fears” about the virus had not been realised so there could be a case for relaxing restrictions sooner.
But he warned it would only be possible if testing, detection and contract tracing could be increased and if strict enforcements were in place.
“In communities with very low cases or none at all, you could loosen restrictions so that people could go to the pub and restaurants but keep tight restrictions on travel in and out,” he said.
“But given the numbers we’re seeing in rural and regional areas are lower than what our worst fears predicted, we’d be concerned if restrictions loosened too quickly and we saw an uptick or second spike, particularly getting into remote Australia.”
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Epidemiologists and rural health experts fear people from remote communities, where health risks are already higher, might drift to nearby rural hubs where restrictions had been eased.
Out-of-towners could also be tempted to travel to where pubs and restaurants had opened.
Health experts say remote communities could suffer if restrictions in nearby hubs are eased too quickly. (ABC News: James Dunlevie)
At Coonabarabran in central-west New South Wales, GP Aniello Iannuzzi said “locking down the towns from outsiders while letting people in the town be free could be the way to go”.
But he admitted policing the policy would be an issue.
“Certainly taking the foot off the brake in a controlled manner would be good; people are definitely getting anxious and upset about so many of the restrictions … and there are reports of domestic violence.”
Dr Iannuzzi said vigilance would be key as Australia pursued “new territory” in easing restrictions.
“You’ve got to rely on people’s honesty at some point in time. You can’t magically reach a point that is going to guarantee your success, certainly not while there’s not a vaccine or treatment.”
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