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Virus on the ropes, but fight far from over

In the US protesters have even taken to the streets demanding a premature end to the lockdowns. The result is some US states are rushing relaxing restrictions even though their morgues struggle to bury the dead.

Australia has got this far by sticking to a careful plan, however, and now is not the time to throw it out the window. The restrictions must be rolled back gradually and in a way that ensures the coronavirus remains under control.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison foreshadowed on Thursday that he may ease restrictions soon and that Australia could even reopen borders with New Zealand, which has made similar progress flattening the infection curve. But he also insisted it must be a “COVID-safe economy” and the process could take months.

That delay will be frustrating to many because they imagine that the crisis has passed. This is understandable. Even the government says modelling shows the rate of undetected disease in the community is very low.

But to understand the danger of dropping our guard, look to Singapore which was once the poster child for how best to manage a national COVID-19 response. Over the past week, Singaporean authorities discovered a neglected cluster of infections and suddenly cases have shot up to thousands a day. The city state is back in lockdown – jolted back to square one while the death rate rises fast.

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To avoid that fate the timetable for reducing restrictions should be based on a careful assessment of a multitude of factors rather than simply the rate of new infections or deaths.

Unfortunately, even with cases close to zero, there is always the possibility a few cases have gone undetected in the community.

As Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told a Senate committee on Thursday, “we have to be very aware that while we have only had seven cases in the last 24 hours, there is a permanent risk of further cases. This is a highly infectious virus and it can take off fairly quickly.”

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Australia cannot relax until we are sure we have the capacity to test all suspected cases as an early warning and to ruthlessly track any cases that do occur. We must ensure our health services are prepared for any accidental outbreaks. And we should also embrace the government’s TraceTogether app, which can identify people who have come into contact with someone diagnosed with the virus.

With those conditions in place, governments should start The Great Re-opening, carefully selecting activities and businesses that deliver maximum economic and social benefit for minimum risk of spreading the disease. It might take months to re-open high risk activities such as sports stadiums or night clubs and even longer to re-open our borders to tourists.

If we keep our cool, however, Australia can emerge in a few months with the disease under control, thousands of lives saved and businesses ready to start rebuilding. If we fold too soon, the hard work could be lost.

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