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In the media: ‘No perfect answer to COVID-19’, says chair of panel which had advice rejected

Fergus Hunter – The Sydney Morning Herald – 25 March 2020

The chair of an academic advisory group which had its recommended strategy to curb COVID-19 rejected by the federal government says there is no perfect solution to the pandemic and those in power should be trusted to make hard decisions during the unprecedented crisis.

A 22-member team from the Group of Eight universities called for a rapid, sweeping and costly lockdown to pave the way for a national recovery once the crisis abates, having been convened following a request from Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy.

The government has been criticised for resisting the more hardline lockdown and on Tuesday Professor Murphy said the Group of Eight advice was “very seriously considered” but noted the conclusions were not unanimous and the government wanted measures that would be sustainable long-term. He said “harder measures” might be required if community transmission increased.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country was facing both health and economic crises and cautioned against rushing into hardline measures because of the potentially “great toll on people’s lives, not just their livelihoods”.Advertisement

Shitij Kapur, dean of medicine at the University of Melbourne, praised the government for seeking a range of expert opinions and said advice on “very complex, unprecedented circumstances is not black and white”, which was why the group he chaired had canvassed a diversity of views on how to escalate social distancing measures.

“We have to all humbly recognise that we don’t know the perfect answer and people who have to reduce all the advice into an actionable decision have a very tough task to do,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“I feel that our job is to give them the evidence and then we have to trust them to make the right decision.”

He said it was easy to offer advice as an academic but those in power had to weigh up a complex mix of medical, scientific, economic and social factors. He also noted the situation was evolving “dramatically” and had changed even as the expert group developed their recommendations from late last week until Sunday.

Professor Kapur said people could not be complacent and he was comfortable with a much stronger lockdown but it should also be recognised that Australia was showing low infection rates, high testing rates, low fatality rates and still relatively few cases from local community transition.

“We should in no way be complacent but I don’t think we should throw stones at a system that has managed to achieve these statistics,” he said.

The expert group’s final advice – revealed by the Herald and the Age – recommended “strong, immediate and coordinated social distancing measures, accompanied by an enhanced COVID-19 testing regime”. The shutdown would include “more extensive banning of mass gatherings, school closure or class dismissal”.

A minority of the group had advocated for a more localised and phased approach, based on the spread of COVID-19 in different areas, with more limited school closures.

As the pandemic has started to spread more widely in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s advice, and demeanour, has changed substantially.

University of Melbourne computational modeller Nic Geard, who was part of the expert group, said the modelling of the pandemic was evolving and there was still significant uncertainty.

“As scientists we accept that we start off with a lot of uncertainty. We can pass on advice and communicate that uncertainty to the decision makers,” he said.

UNSW epidemiologist Margo Barr, also part of the group, praised the government’s escalating public communications campaign on the COVID-19 response and welcomed Professor Murphy’s emphasis on the importance of complying with self-isolation and social distancing advice.

“Simple messaging is important but people also want honesty about what’s happening and how difficult it’s going to be,” she said.

Other members of the group included biosecurity professor Raina MacIntyre, bioethics professor Angus Dawson, clinical epidemiologist Tracy Merlin, environmental epidemiologist Jane Heyworth, Australian National University dean of medicine Russell Gruen, quarantine history specialist Alison Bashford and legal academic Terry Carney.