explainer

90 days or 6 months? A breakdown of how long social distancing rules could be in place.

Never has it been so simple to help save lives. All we have to do is: stay home unless we need something absolutely essential; wash our hands more often and for longer than usual; and not touch our faces. Easy, right? Heroes, the whole lot of us.

But while we know it’s absolutely crucial that we practise social distancing, we’re all asking the same question: How long will novel coronavirus regulations last?

Watch: Mamamia’s The Quicky host Claire Murphy delivers the facts on COVID-19.

Video by Mamamia

The problem with answering.

You will have noticed that the folks in charge are reluctant to answer. Because in truth, it would be a guess.

The best academic minds in the country are doing constant analysis and modelling to inform the way authorities respond. But they’re dealing with a whole lot of unknowns.

What is clear, is that Australia is currently at a crucial juncture in our fight against this virus. Now that our borders have closed to all but returning residents and citizens, all eyes are firmly on community transmission — that is, infections that spread between people who have not recently returned from overseas.

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Limiting that is precisely why keeping strict social distancing regulations in place is crucial. In the absence of a vaccine (which is likely 12-18 months away), it’s the best chance we have of slowing the spread and preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. Also, reverse those measures too soon and we’ve got a second wave of the crisis on our hands.

Given all that, it’s little wonder then, that only a handful of people at the top have publicly mentioned specific timelines. Let’s break down what those brave souls have said and what they meant.

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller: “It’s 90 days.”

NSW Police Commissioner Fuller sparked a lot of coverage this week when he revealed that NSW’s latest regulations (including public gatherings being limited to two people, and people being unable to leave their home without a “reasonable excuse”) had a 90-day sunset clause.

“I certainly won’t be seeking an extension – people will have gotten the message by then, hopefully,” he told a press conference.

Today, Premier Gladys Berejiklian had to stress that Fuller’s “90 days” declaration is a legal technicality that relates to the current order, and not an indication that things will go completely back to normal at the end of June.

“So the rules that are in place now, the 90 days is a technicality,” she told KIIS FM. “Whenever you bring in rules like this, they last 90 days… So we shouldn’t pay much attention to that.”

Instead, she explained, they will be constantly assessed and reassessed for…

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian: “A number of months.”

Premier Berejiklian, the person in charge of the state with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, told KIIS that the fight against the virus will last “at least six months”, and that physical distancing restrictions would be in place for “a number of months” but not necessarily at the current level.

“It doesn’t mean we will be in this situation for six months with the restrictions,” she said. “We might find a period of time when the health [authorities] say, ‘We can lift a few of the restrictions, or we need to put a few back in’.”

Listen: What Australia healthcare workers want you to know.

Most of the states are handling their most strict measures in the same way: essentially putting some form of short-term limit on them as a technicality, but allowing room for tightening or loosening depending on how things progress.

Victoria’s stay at home directions are for 14 days, but designed to be regularly reviewed and extended (Premier Daniel Andrews said it is “highly likely that they will be further extended” come April 13). As are Tasmania’s movement restrictions, which were imposed for four weeks from March 30. Queensland’s home-confinement rules are more open-ended, in that they will remain in place “until the end of the declared public health emergency, unless they are revoked or replaced”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison: “Everything we do, we have to do for six months.”

Prime Minister Morrison was the first of the National Cabinet leaders to throw a number out there. Speaking at a press conference on March 18 he uttered the sentence: “Everything we do, we have to do for six months.”

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He’s stuck by that number since, but has clarified a little. Just last night on A Current Affair, he spoke about the possibility of easing restrictions once we’ve passed a peak in virus cases.

“The six month period was based on early modelling that was done, which showed how we move through a peak [in new cases] and go through to the other side and it returns to lower levels,” he said. “On the other side of the peak of cases, we can obviously look at how we might ease restrictions and we have to be careful about that. But what I’m trying to get across to Australians is we’re in this new normal for some time.”

That peak? Well, modelling released by the University of Sydney today suggests it’s coming in as little as a couple of weeks.

“The model updated with most recent data shows that Australia is very close to the incidence peak, and in two weeks’ time may be approaching the prevalence peak,” research lead Professor Mikhail Prokopenko said.

“What this means is that the number of new daily cases will begin to steadily reduce from now on. The number of all ‘active’ cases may keep rising until mid-April, and then start to slowly decline.”

Based on that and the Prime Minister and Premiers’ words, it’s likely our current situation will stay in place for a few months until we’re well an truly on the other side of that peak. At that point, some small wind backs may begin — best guess would be the size of gatherings, and more freedom to leave your home.

But again, it seems we won’t get a glimpse of ‘normal’ until spring.

“I’ve said it’s at least six months. It could be longer,” the Prime Minister said. “But our hope is, of course, over that period of six months that we’ll be in a very different position in terms of the way that the virus is moving through the community. But that doesn’t necessarily immediately mean that everything else can change, and we’ll have to assess that at the time based on the best medical advice.”

Read more on COVID-19:

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To protect yourself and the community from COVID-19, remain in your home unless strictly necessary, keep at least 1.5 metres away from other people, regularly wash your hands and avoid touching your face.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

Feature image: Getty.

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