Australians can expect the current level of coronavirus restrictions to be in place for at least the next month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a press conference on Thursday afternoon.
“We want to be very clear with Australians: the baseline restrictions we have in place at the moment … there are no plans to change those for the next four weeks, in terms of states that have gone beyond the baseline restrictions,” Morrison said.
The prime minister outlined three conditions which must be met before the government would consider relaxing the restrictions, which have come to dominate much of Australian life: increased testing, better contract tracing, and improved local response capabilities.
1. Increased testing
Morrison said Australia needs “an even broader testing regime” than we currently have in place.
“We have one of, if not, the most extensive testing regime is in the world today,” Morrison said. “But we need to do even better than that to make sure that we can have greater confidence that when we moved to a lesser restriction environment, we can have confidence we can identify any outbreaks very quickly and respond to them.”
Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy emphasised the strength of the current testing regime in comparison to the rest of the world, referring to a model devised by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“Australia is ranked highest in this model of all of those countries in its symptomatic case detection rate,” Murphy said. “The estimates show we are the most likely country in the world in this modelling to detect symptomatic cases.”
But, Morrison says, we need to ramp that up before restrictions can be lifted.
2. Better contract tracing
Presently, state governments and health authorities are doing the work of determining where positive COVID-19 cases picked up their infection, and to whom they might have passed on the virus.
“I want to commend the state governments, this has been the really heavy lifting they have been doing over the last several weeks, and really boosting capability of tracing cases, they are a team of Sherlock Holmes out there at the moment and they are doing a fantastic job on tracking down these cases,” Morrison said.
However, Morrison said Australia needs to raise contact tracing to “an industrial capability” in order to put the country in a place where restrictions can be lifted.
The Australian government is developing an app, the specific details of which are still unclear, in order to facilitate this expansion of tracing capability. Broadly, as in other countries like Singapore, the app would be used to identify where infected people have travelled and who they may have come into contact with. Morrison said issues like privacy protections were still being worked out.
“The trace app which has been put in place in Singapore is a consent based model,” the prime minister said.
“The reason we are not quite ready yet is we are still working through ensuring that it meets the privacy protections, which are robust and up to a standard that we believe is necessary for the Australian context and that is what the Attorney General is working on right now.”
3. Improved local response capabilities
Morrison also described a need to improve the capacity to address and respond to outbreaks on a local level. He pointed to a recent spate of cases in north-east Tasmania as an example – where the Australian Defence Force has been working with state authorities to contain further spread.
“We need the ability to move very fast to be able to lockdown an outbreak where it occurs, and make sure it does not transmit broadly within the community,” Morrison said.
Morrison also said it was possible restrictions could be reintroduced
Any lifting of restrictions could be reversed if the situation demanded it, Morrison confirmed.
“You can’t rule out increasing potentially restrictions at some point if things got a bit out of control because the virus writes its own rules,” the prime minister said. “It doesn’t work to our rules.”
He pointed to unspecified overseas examples in saying that the process of lifting restrictions would be a slow one, to ensure that it does not result in a rapid spread of the virus.
“If you ease off too quickly too early, then you end up making the situation even worse – and I don’t just mean in the health terms,” he said.
“If you move too early and the health response gets out of control, then the economic consequences will be even worse.
“We need to keep it finely balanced, that is what we are seeking to do.”
This article was originally published on Business Insider Australia. Click here for more Australian stories like this.