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Australia should go for zero COVID-19 cases

by Stephen Duckett and Will Mackey

Victoria, NSW, and Queensland should aggressively drive COVID-19 cases down to zero as part of an explicit national policy of no active cases in the Australian community, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

Go for zero: how Australia can get to zero COVID-19 cases shows that opening up too early, while coronavirus is still in the community, runs the risk of future outbreaks, reimposed lockdowns, renewed economic disruption, and more deaths.

‘Having come this far, we should finish the job,’ says lead author and Grattan Health Program Director Stephen Duckett.

‘COVID is a classic case of short-term pain for long-term gain. Getting cases down to zero, and keeping them there, will be hard work – but it will save lives and enable the economy to recover more quickly.’

The report shows that allowing the virus to run free, as suggested by some commentators and business advocates, would be deadly. About 10 million Australians, including the elderly, the poor, and people who live or work in crowded conditions, are at higher risk from COVID-19.

The NSW strategy of seeking to keep cases down to a manageable level is also dangerous, because the longer the virus is in the community, the greater the risk of breakouts requiring lockdowns to be reimposed to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed. ‘That’s the “yo-yo” strategy,’ Dr Duckett says. ‘The economy could be seized with uncertainty as businesses open, close, open, and close again.’

Instead, NSW, Queensland, and Victoria – the epicentre of Australia’s second wave – should set out to drive community cases down to zero. The report shows that Victoria could get to zero by the end of October, but only if the vast majority of the population adheres to strict social distancing measures.

Just as restrictions were phased in as each wave of the pandemic struck, they should be phased out as case numbers decline. There should be no easing until daily new cases are below 20, then further easing when the numbers fall to five, and again at zero.

Keeping numbers at zero will require effective quarantining of all international arrivals. The states will have to ramp up testing, including random mass testing of higher-risk groups. And contact tracing will have to be faster and more accurate.

But a successful national campaign to get to zero and stay there would enable all restrictions to be eased other than international quarantine, while the quest for a vaccine continues.

‘We should go for zero, because the pay-off will be worth it,’ Dr Duckett says. ‘Our report shows how Australia can get there, and stay there.’

Stephen Duckett : 0447 837 741, stephen.duckett@grattaninstitute.edu.au