Not yet, was the consensus of a number of infectious disease experts and epidemiologists to whom The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald posed this question.
They said the UK had until now been slow to act, after initially choosing not to shut down large gatherings or introduce stringent social distancing measures.
But they said if Australia wants to flatten the curve – slow the rate of infection so that heath authorities can cope – individuals need to do a better job of complying with social distancing rules.
These include ensuring at least four square metres between people in enclosed spaces, not shaking hands, kissing or hugging, working from home wherever possible and limiting exposure to other people.
“After the next two weeks we will need to assess whether Australians are taking the current restrictions seriously,” said Professor John Dwyer, an immunologist and emeritus professor of medicine at the University of NSW.
Professor Dwyer said so far Australians had been slow to implement social distancing – such as continuing to go to the beach in some places – when “a whole of community effort not seen since World War II was required”.
He said he was relieved to hear the government was broadening the testing for COVID-19.
“If in two weeks we find there is still sloppiness and dangerous behaviour I think we will be doing exactly what they are doing in the UK and Italy.”
In the meantime, Professor Dwyer believed there were still some loopholes that needed to be closed.
He said the number of people in supermarkets at any one time should be restricted, so people could practice social distancing. “We don’t want old people given special times to shop, we don’t want old people in supermarkets at all,” he said.
What about the controversial issue of whether to close schools? To date, only Victoria has closed schools a week before school holidays were due to start.
UNSW Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an advisor to the World Health Organisation on COVID-19 preparedness, said there hadn’t been a widespread outbreak of the virus in schools.
“Children have been very safe in schools and teachers have been very safe looking after children,” she said.
She said she understood the anxiety of parents, but if they wanted to pull their children out of school they needed to ensure they enforced social distancing.
“If you are going to take your children out of school you need to remember you need to keep them at home and away from play dates because the logic has to flow,” she said.
Professor McLaws said she appreciated some teachers were also feeling anxious and if schools were kept open they needed to be included as a priority group for testing.
“They are now like health care workers – on the front line – and it is important we keep their anxiety in check.”
Professor McLaws said particles from the virus can be spread up to 2.5 metres away from an infected person by breathing and talking.
“If you are waiting in a queue it is sensible to stand back from the person in front of you and don’t talk.”
Professor Paul Komesaroff, from the faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Monash University, said the UK was playing catch-up.
“I guess we’ve had a bit of breathing space, which has allowed us to gradually increase restrictions,” he said.
“At this point by adapting a lot of careful planning we are reasonably comfortable with the way things are going in hospitals and elsewhere.”
Professor Komesaroff said he believed it was inevitable that schools would close nationwide and “didn’t disagree” with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ decision to bring forward the school holidays. However, he said he acknowledged it was a complex issue.
Tony Blakely, a Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Melbourne, said the first question politicians needed to answer was: Are we trying to flatten the curve – manage the level of infections so the health system is not overwhelmed – or eradicate it?
“We need politicians to clearly state what our end game is,” Professor Blakely said.
“If we are aiming to flatten the curve, the answer is no, we don’t need to do more just yet,” he said.
He said there had been seven deaths in Australia and the health system was not yet at risk of being overwhelmed. “We are not yet at the point of the UK,” he said.
“If we are flattening the curve we are probably at the right level of distancing. We need to monitor and set targets and if we are not hitting them we need to tighten up the screws.”
However, he said if Australia wanted to eradicate the virus – as New Zealand was attempting to do with its four-week shutdown – politicians had about 48 hours to enforce stronger measures.
Jewel Topsfield is Melbourne Editor of The Age.