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In the media: National cabinet prepares to escalate Australian shutdown

March 24, 2020

Fergus Hunter, Eryk Bagshaw and Rob Harris – The Sydney Morning Herald – 24 March 2020

Australians will face restrictions on hosting social gatherings in their own homes and more workplaces will be forced to close as the nation moves towards a British-style shutdown that could last months.

In an escalation of shutdown measures discussed by national cabinet on Tuesday night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state and territory leaders were preparing for the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic, which would see only essential services operate and residents largely confined to their homes.

The new restrictions come after an elite team of academics quietly recruited by the federal government to help develop Australia’s social distancing strategy recommended an immediate, hardline and costly lockdown to boost the chances of a quick national recovery once the COVID-19 crisis ends.

Urging a “go now, go hard, go smart” strategy that would shut down schools, the expert group advised Health Minister Greg Hunt and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of Australians would not comply with the measures and strengthened public communication was needed.

The final advice from 22 eminent specialists from the Group of Eight research universities, seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, endorsed a major escalation, urging Australia to seize a “short and vital window” and introduce “strong, immediate and co-ordinated social distancing measures, accompanied by an enhanced COVID-19 testing regime” to be sustained in the long term.

Mr Hunt began preparing the public for the tougher measures on Tuesday after the first stage of shutdowns was enacted over the weekend. He warned the banning of all pubs, clubs and gyms was “not the last stage, and I think I should be very upfront and honest about that”.

Australian cases topped 2000 by Wednesday, after doubling in less than three days, particularly in NSW and Victoria. An eighth Australian died of the virus on Tuesday after contracting it on the Ruby Princess cruise ship, which docked in Sydney last week.

“The general direction, obviously, is about people spending more time at home, obviously keeping the distance,” Mr Hunt said. “House parties, they’re out, let me be absolutely clear on that.”

The measures are likely to see restrictions on barbecues, dinner parties and birthdays. One option being considered is restricting private gatherings to 10 people or less.

The national cabinet is expected to establish a nationally consistent approach on the definition of essential services on Tuesday night. The move will help define which businesses must close and those that can remain open.

The advice from the leading academics across epidemiology, infectious diseases, biosecurity, law, computational modelling, mental health and emergency response was requested by Professor Murphy last week and sent to Mr Hunt on Sunday in the midst of an extraordinary split between the federal government and NSW and Victoria, with the states agitating for a more hardline crackdown.

It backed a rapid rollout of measures that would include “more extensive banning of mass gatherings, school closure or class dismissal”.

“While the stronger measures recommended increase the upfront cost of action, there is evidence that it increases the likelihood of a speedier move to a national social and economic recovery phase,” the group advised.

“Interventions need to be comprehensive and simultaneous to have the most impact – a slow trickle of interventions, or suburb-by-suburb lockdowns likely will not be adequate.”

Mr Morrison on Sunday flagged that suburbs could be isolated and locked down one by one as the crisis escalated.

A minority of experts in the group had argued for a localised and phased approach to school closures and other interventions, based on the particular spread of COVID-19 in different areas. They highlighted the benefits of keeping schools open, including managing children’s social distancing and hygiene. That position is closer to the one adopted by the Morrison government so far.

Members of the high-powered academic group included Melbourne University dean of medicine Shitij Kapur, biosecurity professor Raina MacIntyre, bioethics professor Angus Dawson, clinical epidemiologist Tracy Merlin, computational modeller Nic Geard, environmental epidemiologist Jane Heyworth, Australian National University dean of medicine Russell Gruen, quarantine history specialist Alison Bashford and legal academic Terry Carney.

The experts also recommended the government urgently roll out a “much-enhanced and co-ordinated regime of COVID-19 testing” that would include community testing to estimate the rates of disease in the population.

On Monday, Mr Hunt said 135,000 tests had been conducted in Australia and a further 1.5 million kits had been ordered. The scale of testing has been constrained by the short supply of kits. Universities are also developing testing methods.