A key member of an expert panel advising the Government’s response to COVID-19 has voiced her frustrations at Australia’s staged shutdown approach, warning the death toll could potentially rise if the Government did not take a “go hard, go now approach”.
- Infectious disease expert Raina MacIntrye said the Government could do the right thing for public health and the economy
- The PM announced a nationwide crackdown on social gatherings, but stopped short of a lockdown
- She said the country would see “more cases and potentially more deaths” as a result of the delay
Raina MacIntyre from the UNSW’s Biosecurity Program is part of an expert panel from Australia’s leading universities, which recommended an immediate but short lockdown to curb cases, an approach the Government did not take.
“I was hoping we’d see a more comprehensive lockdown for a short period of time, but that is not the approach we’re taking,” Professor MacIntyre said.
“It’s more a trickle sort of approach, a little bit by bit, which won’t be as effective at stopping the transmission in the community.”
Professor MacIntyre said the majority of panellists — including specialists from the fields of epidemiology, bio-ethics and medicine — urged the Government to act within a short and vital window.
“The majority of people on the panel did agree with this go hard, go now approach,” she said.
“The more you slam on the brakes, the more control you’ll get of the epidemic, the more the cases will go down.
“The other alternative is to wait until things really get out of control and your health system starts to get infected.
“Then you try all those measures which we’ve seen happening in Italy and Spain and so on. But by then, the epidemic is so big that the chance of success is less and the time to recover from that is much longer.”
According to Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, the group of university experts is one of several expert panels that the Government has been consulting, including the Communicable Disease Network of Australia and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
The panel of academics from Australia’s Group of Eight universities made its recommendations in a letter to the federal Health Minister on Monday, most of which related to the “scope and scale” of physical distancing measures.
The letter recommended the introduction of “strong immediate and co-ordinated social distancing measures”, to avoid the same trajectory as Italy, the US and the UK.
It also called for stronger physical distancing measures, school closures and enhanced testing “without delay” and pointed to evidence stronger measures “increase the likelihood of a speedier move to national social and economic recovery phase”.
Professor MacIntyre said the National Cabinet’s decision to proceed with a staged shutdown would cost lives.
“Definitely we will see more cases and potentially more deaths,” she said.
PM says complete shutdown ‘was not recommended’
The academics’ recommendation went further than the latest advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee — made up of the country’s chief medical officers — which has not yet called for a total shutdown.
Last night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a decision by the National Cabinet to expand business closures and restrictions and implored people not to gather in groups.
He stopped short of announcing a total lockdown like the United Kingdom or India.
When asked why the Government had not initiated a full shutdown, as urged by the Group of Eight expert panel, Mr Morrison said: “That was not recommended”.
Professor Murphy said a complete shutdown was not “a unanimous view”.
“That opinion, like the opinion of many external experts, was considered by the very large and complex process that we undertook with the Communicable Disease Network of Australia, which is the primary expert advisory group, and the AHPPC, with another half a dozen academic experts in that, and that position was very seriously considered,” he said.
“The idea that you can put measures in place for four weeks and suddenly stop them and the virus will be gone is not credible.”
Until now, Professor MacIntrye has been supportive of the Government’s approach to dealing with the pandemic.
She said it would be another two weeks before we know how successful Australia’s distancing measures have been.
“I’m not expecting to see much impact of the social distancing measures, but I am expecting to see an impact of the travel bans,” she said.
Not a choice between lives and jobs
Professor MacIntyre said the Government was doing its best to keep the economy afloat but believed we can do the right thing for both public health and the economy.
“There’s a mistaken belief that it’s the economy or disease control and you have to choose one or the other,” she said.
She said that was completely false.
“If you don’t control the disease, your economic losses are going to be far greater and the recovery time is going to be a lot longer.”
“So it’s just a fallacy to think it’s a choice between saving lives and jobs.”
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews has indicated stricter measures were likely, though he did not detail what those measures to curb the spread of coronavirus might be.
Professor MacIntrye said Australia would be naive to “assume we have everything under control”, and that there was still time to bring the situation under control.
“It’s not too late. China was having thousands and thousands of cases a day at the time when they implemented the lockdown. But they brought it under control, so it is possible,” she said.
“And unless you stop 70 to 80 per cent of people contacting each other, you’re not going to stop the transmission.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt has been contacted for comment.
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