Today, Australia has asked the UK for their citizens to be exempt from the UK’s policy to quarantine all international travellers, while they also opened schools around the country. And while this seems preposterous to many of us, how is it possible that they have moved on so fast from the COVID-19 outbreak?
Today, the BBC reported on Trade Minister Simon Birmingham’s statement to the United Kingdom, where thousands of Australian expats live, meaning that roughly 700,000 Australians visit the UK and visa versa. Nearly eight million Australian residents have UK ancestry. He argued that Australians pose a low-risk with regards to travel due to their successful containment of the virus, which limited the number of cases to around 600, despite being on of the first nations to have recorded its first case. They are therefore calling to be exempt from the impending UK travel ban which would quarantine all international travellers.
“Australia has led the world in the successful containment of COVID-19, which clearly means that travellers coming from Australia would pose a low risk to the rest of the world,” Birmingham said.
Naturally for the UK to even consider exempting Australians from the ban at this unprecedented period in history, it would require extraordinary justification. So what has Australia’s secret been?
The first case of the coronavirus in Australia was identified way back on 25 January in Victoria, where a man had returned from his travels to Wuhan, the Chinese city from where SARS-CoV-2 originated. And the country became one of the first nations in the world to shut down its borders to non-residents, while imposing a two week quarantine on returning residents, along with New Zealand.
“We believe it is essential to take (this) further step,” Birmingham said back in March, as reported by 7News. “I have been consulting with the New Zealand Prime Minister on (this) ban.
“For Australians, of course, they will be able to return and they will be subject, as they already are, to 14 days of isolation upon arrival back in Australia.”
The ban allowed the country to effectively contain the virus within its borders, allowing them to test and trace returning residents when necessary. To ensure that returning travellers complied with the quarantine, the government took travellers directly from airports to paid accommodation in hotels.
Days after the travel ban was imposed, Australia’s government decided to set out guidelines for very strict social distancing measures.
“Earlier, I announced the 100-person limit on non-essential indoor gatherings, and I went through the list of those things that were essential,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, according to ABC News. “I won’t do that again today. It is the same list.
“But what we are now moving to is an arrangement for gatherings of less than 100, is that there would be 4 square metres provided per person in an enclosed space, in a room. So that’s 2 metres by 2 metres. So for example, if you’ve got a room, if you’ve got a premises, if you’ve got a meeting room or something like that, that is 100 square metres, then you can have 25 people in that room.
“Now, in addition to that, you should continue to practice wherever possible the 1 metre or 1.5 metres of healthy distance between each of us, to ensure that we are limiting the contact and limiting the potential for the spread of the virus.”
So for Australians, this meant effectively that restaurants and other tightly packed recreational spaces like sporting events were off limits. “Non-essential services” were closed, including pubs and nightclubs, but unlike many other countries these did not include most business operations such as construction, manufacturing and many retail categories. No outdoor spaces could contain more than 500 people. Yet, life wasn’t put on a complete, hard lockdown.
People could still go to work, but had to operate in adequately sized spaces. Effectively they were in a semi-lockdown mode. And Australian residents were happy to comply with the measures in the interest of public safety, while the economy was still able to run, even though it had taken a mild hit.
Furthermore, many of the social distancing restrictions were applied differently for Australia’s states. In Western Australia, for example, there were very few cases and social distancing rules have been somewhat lenient, while they have been far stricter in other regions such as New South Wales, where the number of cases was very high. Not to mention, many parts of Australia are rural areas, where there is very little contact between residents from different households, anyway.
Flattening the curve
While the number of cases rose to a point where 350 new cases were reported every day by the end of March, those numbers started to decline by the beginning of April to under 20 cases a day by the end of the month. Part of the success in achieving this came down to Australia’s universal healthcare system, which allowed for free and widely available testing. Anybody in the state of Victoria who was showing symptoms of COVID-19 was able to get tested, as announced by Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos in mid-April. Victoria’s testing was the most organised and easiest to access, but similar measures were implemented in all of the states and therefore anybody that contracted the virus was quickly tracked down, treated and isolated to prevent the spread.
The Reserve Bank of Australia almost immediately reacted to the coronavirus outbreak and cut interest rates by 0.25% before the social distancing measures and travel bans had been announced – the resulting 0.25% interest rate became the lowest figure in Australian history. Shortly after the government announced a A$16 billion ($10.43 billion/R185 billion) stimulus package to counter the effects, with the intention of keeping jobs, keep businesses running and to support households. A one-off A$750 payment was issued to 6.5 million residents that are living on welfare in the country as early as the end of March. Meanwhile, 50% wage subsidies, $700 million tax exemptions and a #3.2 billion investment in small to medium sized businesses were issued.
As a result of the forward thinking of the government and the Reserve Bank, more than 8,000 businesses were able to receive payments, countless jobs have been saved and millions of Australian homes have not been completely devastated by the economic impact of the virus.
Where are they now?
As of 22 May, Australia has had 10,095 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and has recorded just 101 deaths, while 6,748 people have recovered. At the beginning of May, Scott Morrison announced a three-step plan to fully reopen the country by July, with the government winding down social distancing measures to ensure the process is carried out safely.
The first step is to allow families and friends to reconnect, allowing for more people to gather at home and visit each other. Children will be allowed return to school, while restaurants, retail stores and cafes can reopen, according to CNN. Thirty people will be allowed to attend funerals and ten will be able to attend weddings.
The second step is to allow gatherings of up to 20 people in venues such as cinemas and galleries, while some community organised sporting events will resume and beauty salons will reopen.
Step three will allow for gatherings of up to 100 people and interstate travel will be possible.
While there has been no strict timeline specified, the Prime Minister has made clear his intention for the phases to be carried out to full effect by July to reopen the country at that time, with minimal to no risk.
On Monday, pupils in New South Wales will be permitted to return to school after more than two months out. New South Wales has only reported two new infections in the last 24 hours, but some parents and teachers remain concerned that it may be too early to take this step. Also, Sydney’s bars, restaurants and cafés will be permitted to resume operation next week with up to 50 people inside – and with everyone having at least 4 square metres of personal space.
A blueprint for pandemic responses
Whether lifting the travel ban on Australians in the UK would be wise is perhaps a discussion for experts on pandemics and policy makers, but there is one thing that is clear: Australia is justified in its quest to at least open the debate.
Everywhere around the world, this would be ludicrous and unthinkable, but Australia’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been nothing short of spectacular, from a healthcare, policy and economic perspective.