Maintaining strict lockdowns until June could drive a 50 per cent greater economic boost than if measures were slowly eased a month earlier, under one of two COVID-19 recovery plans presented to the government.
University researchers have given government leaders two strategies to recover from the coronavirus pandemic – controlled adaptation with restrictions eased sooner, or elimination, which could keep restrictions in place until June but increase public confidence and economic activity.
More than 100 researchers from the Group of Eight universities contributed to the “Roadmap to Recovery” report, which was delivered to Health Minister Greg Hunt and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee this week. It is the most comprehensive analysis performed on the economic, social and health trade-offs involved in the national recovery from the pandemic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said no national restrictions will be eased before May 11. With only 12 new cases of COVID-19 in the 24 hours to Tuesday – and only one a confirmed community transmission – some states and territories want to relax some rules. Mr Hunt labelled the low number of cases a “cause for hope”.
Under both the elimination and controlled adaptation strategies put to the government, border restrictions would remain in place for the foreseeable future, with a consensus Australians cannot travel overseas except for essential reasons and anyone entering the country must be subject to an enforced and monitored two-week quarantine period.
The regime of travel restrictions would be in place for at least six months, with the ability to allow travel with certain countries under bilateral deals if they have had the same success in containing the virus. Australia would also need to engage the World Health Organisation on a vaccine certification program if one became available.
The researchers from across economic, health and other disciplines settled into two camps, with those favouring elimination finding Australia was on track to eradicate community transmission and it was “likely to have already been achieved in multiple jurisdictions”.
They say while a “controlled adaptation” strategy could see widespread easing of restrictions by mid-May, delaying until June and eliminating virus transmission on a state-by-state basis would minimise risks, ultimately allow for stronger relaxation and generate a sense of safety and confidence among the Australian public.
“To achieve this elimination, Australia would likely have to continue the lockdown in certain jurisdictions beyond mid-May, possibly for another 30 days,” the researchers concluded, saying a two-week wait would be needed after new local cases fall to zero.
Modelling to support the strategy projected a 5 per cent higher level of economic activity per month from August onwards.
“Thus, an elimination strategy might be expected to deliver, over an 18-month period, about 50 per cent more increase in economic output compared to controlled adaptation,” they projected.
Australian National University public health physician and epidemiologist Emily Banks said: “Elimination means you have extinguished the fire, you have a really good system of smoke detectors in place and you have a system to deal with any embers that come in.”
The researchers supporting controlled adaptation said their approach “acknowledges the high likelihood of prolonged global circulation of this infection” and adapts Australia to living with the ongoing risk, accepting a “slightly higher number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths” and requiring a powerful ability to respond to outbreaks.
University of Melbourne Dean of Medicine Shitij Kapur, co-chair of the Group of Eight effort, said controlled adaptation would not allow for significant transmission but would not require that “strict definition of elimination be met”.
ANU economist Warwick McKibbin said the nationwide success in containing the spread meant Australia “could start a very clear strategy for opening from this week”, with states able to put in place targeted measures based on their own situations under a nationally-coordinated approach.
“You can never actually eliminate it. If you really could, you would get some confidence in the economy. But it wouldn’t be enough to reduce the economic cost already incurred,” he said.
Another month of lockdowns could impose an estimated blow of 2 per cent of GDP, according to the researchers.
Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight universities, said: “We hope that what we have provided will now greatly assist the government as it wrestles to work through how best to take Australia forward with this decision due in mid-May.”
Mr Hunt told the Group of Eight team when they started the project it would “help inform, guide and where necessary challenge our ongoing work and for that I am deeply thankful”.
As well as travel restrictions, both approaches require extensive testing, tracing and isolation capacity and strong communications from the government to ensure public trust and engagement with the rules.