A Zero Infection Rate in Australia is within Sight

Recent weeks have seen a substantial improvement in the new infection rates for COVID-19 in Australia. This low infection rate puts us in a fortunate position compared with other countries.

We were lucky enough that the exponential component of infection growth did not occur for long; largely due to effective social distancing, border controls and quarantining processes. The curve has been flattening and it is entirely plausible that a zero infection rate can be achieved and sustained.

I don’t believe that there is a target infection rate (other than zero) that we can control to. The system has an exponential component, a long time constant (incubation period) and weak linkages between actions and new infection  rates. If I can remember enough about control theory, it is enough to realise that you have, at best, a quasi-stable system (much like an old bike with the ‘speed wobbles’ just before you go over the handlebars); therefore, my view is that Australia should continue to ‘go hard’ until we have a sustained zero infection rate.

In a recent blog, the Grattan Institute calls for elimination as a target for Australia, stating that a near-zero infection rate would give most Australians a chance of a near normal life well before the end of the year.

In my view, we are going to be in some form of lockdown until a vaccine or treatment is broadly available; the variables are how many people become seriously ill or die over that period and how will personal freedom and the economy be impacted over this time. A zero infection rate gives us the option to re-open parts of the economy as the risk recedes and obviously has the most positive outcome in terms of serious illness and deaths.

Getting to zero will require continued border closures, continued robust contact tracing, ongoing social distancing and pragmatic policing backed by good policy. A few more months (I’d like to say weeks) of tough love will have enormous value.

With a zero (or close to zero) infection rate, I see scope in Australia to progressively relax some of the restrictions. This should occur on a risk/reward basis and be informed with sound policy driven by data, science, economics and pragmatism.

We should initially clarify the existing rules and allow some extremely low risk activities to become explicitly lawful again subject to the community respecting social distancing (e.g. sitting on a park bench close to home reading a book by yourself, taking one of your children on a driving lesson close to home, going to the dump). However, in instances where we haven’t respected the rules (such as everyone going to the beach at the same time), we are going to have to keep a heavy hand for some time.

Resuming schooling and related activities should be a high priority given the enormous social benefit that comes from schooling and the observed low risk/rate of infection for children.

Re-opening retail and service businesses should also be a high priority, but implemented on a risk/reward basis, perhaps with new controls for specific actives (e.g. a maximum density of tables/chairs in a cafe). Australian business are incredibly adaptable and will respond positively to performance outcomes (indeed they have already).

I can also see the process being imperfect and the re-introduction of controls if/when the risk assessment gets it wrong or as conditions change. Controls in different regions should ramp up if/when outbreaks occur. We do need to be forgiving as restrictions come back in.

It will be some time before we see travel resume. I can see travel opening up on a region by region basis as sustained zero-infection rates are achieved. Firstly travel within your region will open up, then travel between low risk regions will resume. International travel will take much longer to resume, but will resume on a country by country basis based upon sustained zero infection rates within those countries (I can see travel to PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and New Zealand resuming much sooner than any intercontinental travel). However, the threat of coming home to two weeks at in a hotel will be there until a vaccine is in place (in the event of an unexpected outbreak). Again managing risk v economic reward should drive these decisions.

Bill Gates is of the view that life (in the US) will return “semi-normal” for at least eighteen months until a vaccine is broadly available. Gates is advocating a risk based approach to reopening the economy where the economic benefit of an activity is weighed up against new infection risk.