Australia axes overseas travel and large gatherings to slow covid-19

By | March 18, 2020
people outside Sydney Opera House

New measures are in place to limit the spread of covid-19 in Australia

STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP/PA Images

Australia has announced major restrictions on overseas travel, large gatherings and visits to care homes in an effort to limit the spread of covid-19.

The country is in the early stages of its coronavirus outbreak, with 454 infections and six deaths recorded so far. About 50 per cent of infections have been contracted while travelling, 14 per cent from someone with the virus and the rest have unclear sources or are still being investigated.

On 18 March, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a suite of new measures to try to contain the virus. A blanket “do not travel” warning is now in place that asks Australians not to visit any other country. A ban on non-essential indoor gatherings of more than 100 people has also been introduced, and only two people can visit an aged care resident at any one time, and only for a short duration.

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These measures build on existing rules that were implemented on 16 March, including a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period for anyone arriving from overseas, a ban on cruise ships docking in Australia, and a ban on outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people.

The Australian government has also launched an advertising campaign to educate the public about hand hygiene and requested where possible that people stay at least 1.5 metres from each other, pay by card instead of handling cash, shop online and only catch public transport at quiet times.

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Many Australian companies, including several of the major banks, telecommunications companies, law firms and consulting firms, have asked their staff to work from home.

The right response?

These measures are “absolutely what we need right now”, says Kathryn Snow at the University of Melbourne. They aren’t as restrictive as those imposed by some other countries, like Italy, which is under strict lockdown, or Austria, which has banned gatherings of more than five people, but that’s because the virus doesn’t appear to be spreading as widely in Australia, she says.

Snow says a lot of “home-brewed modelling flying around on the internet” predicts that Australia will soon become like Italy, where more than 2500 people have died from covid-19, but  she says this is misleading and driving unnecessary public panic. Such modelling is flawed because it doesn’t account for the impact of Australia’s new control measures, which should slow the spread of the virus, she says.

There have been calls for Australia to shut its schools, but Snow doesn’t believe this action is necessary because students don’t seem to be spreading the virus at this stage. Singapore, which has been highly effective at containing the virus, has kept its schools open.

Test, test, test

Due to a shortage of testing kits, the only Australians who can currently get tested for covid-19 are those who are symptomatic and have recently travelled, had close contact with someone with the virus, work in healthcare, or have severe unexplained pneumonia. The country’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said in a press conference on 14 March that this level of testing was adequate because “community transmission is so low at the moment”.

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The government announced on 18 March that it has imported another 97,000 testing kits, but didn’t say whether it would expand its testing criteria. Raina MacIntyre at the University of New South Wales believes it should follow the World Health Organization’s advice to “test, test, test” in order to identify and isolate as many infected people as possible before they spread the virus to others.

Hospitals prepare

At the moment, Australian hospitals have enough intensive care beds, ventilators and other equipment for the small numbers of seriously ill covid-19 patients they are currently managing, says Simon Judkins at the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine. However, he is worried that hospitals will become overwhelmed if the government’s virus containment measures don’t work and case numbers rapidly surge, especially as the country heads into its annual flu season.

“We’re already having conversations about the ethics protocols and guidelines around who will be given access to ventilators if they become overwhelmed by demand,” he says. “Clinicians may have to make some very tough decisions.”

To prepare for a sudden jump in covid-19 numbers, many Australian hospitals are obtaining extra ventilators and planning to cancel elective surgeries, which will free up beds for intensive care patients and also make surgeons and anaesthetists available to assist intensive care doctors, says Judkins.

Snow is optimistic that Australia will be able to slow the spread of covid-19 enough to prevent overloading the health system, as long as the government and the public adapt quickly to the evolving situation. “We’ve seen places like China, Hong Kong and Singapore getting this thing under control, so we know it can be done, we just need to work together to do this,” she says.

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Morrison said he would meet state and territory leaders again on 20 March to discuss whether further restrictions are needed to help slow the spread of covid-19 in Australia.

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