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Dr Norman Swan on the three ways Australia's COVID-19 lockdown might end.

With social distancing measures slowly working, we’re watching in real time as Australia flattens the curve of COVID-19.

The growth of the coronavirus cases is slowing – there were just 44 new cases reported overnight – and most Australians are doing what they’re told: Stay home, save lives.

On Monday, Minister for Health Greg Hunt told reporters at a press conference the Government is “actively planning” a strategy for when we can relax lockdown restrictions.

Health Minister Greg Hunt on the road out of lockdown. Post continues below video.

Video via 7News

But that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to put this social distancing business behind us anytime soon.

“It’s too soon to make changes,” Hunt said. “We want to work towards an effective eradication of the virus. At the same time, we have also been planning a road out.

“Now, we have come from the road in, which has been the rapid escalation of measures… we’re currently on the road through and now is the time to consolidate for the next period.”

So what could this next period look like?

ABC health expert and the co-host of its daily Coronacast podcast, Dr Norman Swan, told Mamamia‘s The Quicky there is a risk of ‘taking our foot off the brake’ too early, which could lead to a sharp increase in cases again.

“If that’s allowed to slip, we could then go back to where we were and then you’ve got community transmission in a non-immune population of a new virus, and that’s bad news,” he explained.

Dr Norman Swan on three ways Australian quarantine might end. Post continues below audio.


The experts don’t agree on what particular ‘milestones’ should be passed before making changes to restrictions, which explains why different governments and commentators are rumoured to be considering different schedules: Three months, six months, the end of the year, or until a vaccine comes along, have all been rumoured over the last few weeks.

Dr Swan is of the opinion that keeping people “cooped up indoors” is not tolerable for months on end, and not necessarily sustainable economically either.

He explained there are three possible scenarios for emerging out of our current quarantine restrictions, and they all pose their own pros and cons.

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“One is you keep people aged 70 and over indoors to protect themselves and then you sort of take your foot of the brake and allow everybody else to mingle and the virus to spread, and you slowly get a bit of immunity in the population and hopefully you don’t overwhelm your intensive care units and kill doctors and nurses at the same time,” Dr Swan said.

Gold Coast beaches closed
Image: Getty.

He said the second option is to not just 'flatten the curve', but "really knock it off".

"You really get it down to very low levels, so that on any day there's only maybe nine, 10, 15 new cases of COVID-19.

"And if you've got in place a testing regime which tests every single person with symptoms, every single person with a fever, you test them, they're positive, you isolate them, they stick to the isolation, you get their contacts, they get quarantined. You ring fence people, and you ring fence suburbs where there's clusters, lower their activity, then you could actually, potentially, slowly let your foot off the brake and see what happens."

Then, there would be a staged process of reopening society, slowly.

"It could be that kids go back to school because they don't seem to be big spreaders, then it could be that you allow restaurants to open and people to get back to a few categories of work... You do one thing at a time, watch what happens, and over a period of time you slowly get back to some semblance of normality," Dr Swan said.

"But it won't be normality, it will still be social restriction. There will still be the economy working at a lower level, but nothing like we've got at the moment."

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Social-distancing-1200x800
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The third option is to continue with strict restrictions, where people are only allowed to leave their homes for essential reasons such as going to the supermarket or for exercise, which is less sustainable over a long period of time.

Dr Swan said he currently believes the government should be providing more information about our way forward.

"The problem at the moment is the government is not laying out a path for the community, it's only giving the community partial advice," he said.

"The government must have a plan, and I can't imagine for a moment the plan is a six month plan. The plan must be shorter term than that."

He said no matter the option taken, the response would require the public to continue to be responsible in order to lessen the chances of major second and third waves of the virus, and to avoid returning to a more intensive lockdown.

"If we do take our foot off the break, it [will be] very slowly, steadily, over a period of time and watch what happens, and as a community we've got to accept intrusive temperature measuring probably, certainly anyone with a symptom gets monitored and gets tested, we watch people around us and we make sure people with a symptom do get tested, isolated, quarantined - we stick to it all.

"That's the price we pay for normality."

Australia's actions are currently working. But there's a long way to go, and we can't get complacent now.

No matter what happens next, it seems social distancing will continue to be our new normal for some time to come.

You can read more about Australia’s coronavirus situation below:

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.

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