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"This is what social distancing looks like." Last night's Q&A audience was eerily empty.

On Monday nights, the studio for ABC’S Q&A is usually packed with hundreds of audience members asking questions and observing the panellists.

But this week, the audience looked a little different.

As the show began, host Hamish MacDonald stood in front of a small number of audience members, seated far apart from each other and surrounded by empty seats.

All your COVID-19 questions, answered. Post continues below video.

Video via Mamamia

“In the studio tonight, this is what social distancing looks like,” MacDonald said at the opening of the show.

“This is not the usual 200 or 300 people. Instead, there are a few individuals who will ask some of tonight’s questions. They’re all at least 1.5 metres away from each other which is following the protocols,” he said in reference to the government’s social-distancing guidelines.

Viewers described the images as “eerie” and a “stark visual” given the current climate.

Even with the near-empty audience, Monday’s episode broke the record for the most questions ever received.

Unsurprisingly, the focus of the episode was COVID-19 and the government’s response to it.

Neither Prime Minister Scott Morrison nor Health Minister Greg Hunt appeared on the show – leaving the Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck to represent the government.

q&a coronavirus
Image: ABC.
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He was joined on the panel - although not actually in studio - by UNSW Adjunct Professor and Strategic Health Policy Adviser Bill Bowtell, who said the federal government's transparency about the virus had been "in remarkably short supply".

"Wouldn't that create panic? That's the concern," Senator Colbeck responded.

"The panic is already out there," said Prof Bowtell.

"Have you been to the supermarket shelves? Have you seen the security guards who have to allocate and ration toilet paper and every other thing that’s no longer on the shelves? The panic is there because of the lies and the misinformation that have been circulating in the Australian community for weeks and weeks."

Senator Colbeck could not answer how many test kits were available in Australia, but shortages in chemicals that make them is one of the reasons the government has preserved tests for people who meet certain prerequisites, such as overseas travel.

"We were talking earlier tonight about the worried well who might have a tickle in their throat, they might have a headache, they might have a cough, but they don’t have the prerequisites for being tested, and yet they’re turning up at the clinics, because they’re worried.

"That goes to some of the other misinformation that’s been put around in the community. We need to make sure that the messages come from a single source of truth."

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Senator Colbeck said the Government had taken action to "slow down the growth of the virus within the country", to which Bowtell interjected "Rubbish".

"You didn't move early, you moved late, that's rubbish."

"The growth in the rate of spread is because we moved early," Colbeck continued.

"Richard, with all due respect, you are speaking like a politician," Bowtell responded.

"You are not ahead of the curve.

"The Minister for Health in New South Wales today said we are facing exponential growth. The hospitals can't cope with that, the people can't cope with that. You've had since the beginning of January to do this... There was no public education campaign. There was no mobilisation of the people. The state governments did not sanitise and disinfect the transport systems. And people would go around saying that as recently as on Friday your PM was saying nothing to see here. Social distancing next week. Everybody go out and it’s not a problem."

Other panellists shared the view that the federal education campaign came too late.

Former AMA president Dr Mukesh Haikerwal said it should have come much sooner, and Shadow Minister for Finance Katy Gallagher agreed.

"Everyone is having to deal with the level of anxiety and fear in the community that could have and should have been dealt with better by earlier access to information, so that you build trust," she said.

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