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.
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.
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.
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 a ‘yo-yo’ strategy – 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. 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.
Australia should go for zero, because the pay-off will be worth it.