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Government looking for clues to start 'planning our way out' of lockdown

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Infectious disease experts are expecting to know a “way out” of the coronavirus crisis within weeks as modelling focused on community transmission rates becomes clearer.

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As the country enters its fourth week of heavy physical-distancing measures — resulting in a gradual flattening of the curve — health experts have begun contemplating the “next phase” of Australia’s response, beyond the restrictions.

However, according to the experts — including a group of epidemiologists advising the Federal Government — more data on the rate of community transmission is needed before further decisions can be made.

University of Melbourne health epidemiologist Professor Kathryn Snow told the ABC that data would help answer the pragmatic questions such as what could we expect in the next few months.

“[It will tell us] what restrictions can we relax, as well as what measures are needed in specific locations,” Professor Snow said.

“What we will be getting with this new modelling is much more targeted forecasts. It will give us much more specific insight into what’s happening in Australia.”

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said on Tuesday the current data on infection rates was being skewed by infected international travellers, but in the “next week or 10 days” they would have a “much better picture”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that data would “help us plan the way out” and he committed to releasing the data and subsequent modelling to the public.

Speaking on Wednesday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia was mapping its path out of the pandemic.

“We are working to wipe out community transmission and, as we get on top of that, with medical advice, we will begin to take the steps on the road out,” he said.

“It is likely to be in steps and stages that we can test and reverse.

But he said it was “highly unlikely” restrictions such as social distancing or border control would be relaxed any time soon.

“We need to be patient and that will give us the chance to take steps on the way out earlier,” he said.

Hunt said the more successful Australia was in stamping out community transmission, the earlier we could move towards lifting restrictions.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk urged people to remained focussed on social distancing and other prevention measures, warning any relaxation of the community response risked undoing all progress to date.

On Thursday, Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, Jeannette Young, said vigilance was required. She said experts were monitoring the situation in Wuhan, where restrictions are being eased, to determine the likelihood of a second wave of infection.

‘The next phase’

Part of the way to speed up the move to the “next phase” of Australia’s response, according to experts, is to increase testing.

Speaking on ABC’s Radio National, GP and former federal MP, Dr Kerryn Phelps, said, “if you don’t look, you don’t find”.

“We need to know where the cases are,” Phelps said. “To do that, we need to test.”

“Then we can find individual areas and identify clusters to get data and help stop the spread.”

Testing has been ramped up across Australia to pick up more community transmission of the virus. In NSW, pop-up clinics have been set up in hotspots such as Bondi.

A pop-up testing clinic in Bondi

A pop-up testing clinic in Bondi. (Photo: ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

In Queensland, anyone with respiratory symptoms in sites including Brisbane, Cairns and the Gold Coast can be tested.

Victorian authorities are offering testing to anyone who is over the age of 65 and has symptoms, as well as people in industries such as childcare, schools, and frontline workers even if they have not travelled overseas.

Phelps said in time authorities would know whether particular strategies were working, in order to determine the “next phase”.

However, she rejected the notion of herd immunity or that people needed to get sick for Australia to find a way out.

“We don’t know what the level of immunity [in the community] is likely to be, because we don’t know what level of immunity is conferred by having the infection and how long that immunity will last,” she said.

– ABC / Sophie Scott and Nick Sas

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