The SARS-CoV-2 virus (coronavirus) galvanised a public health response not seen in Australia for more than a century. To prevent its spread, and the disease it causes, COVID-19, social and economic activity was shut down. Australia emerged with low numbers of deaths, and a health system which coped with the outbreak.
Australia’s response passed through four phases – containment, reassurance amid uncertainty, cautious incrementalism, and then escalated national action – as the gathering storm of the pandemic became more apparent. Now we are in the fifth phase – transition to a new normal.
In this report, the authors describe a model developed at Grattan Institute which simulates the risks of different relaxation strategies, and they draw some lessons for the health system. The report shows that some strategies, such as reopening schools, involve some risk of outbreaks, but these outbreaks most likely can be controlled. They authors highlight those strategies which are riskier, particularly reopening large workplaces. As those workplaces reopen, employers should be required to implement protocols to minimise transmission of the virus. This may require fewer people being at work at any one time, with staggered start and finish times and even staggered working days.
Seven lessons from the health system response should be incorporated into a new normal: expand telehealth; expand hospital-in-the home; encourage outreach and telehealth with new primary care funding models; restart public elective surgery differently, including using private hospitals; improve health system readiness by better planning and coordination; strengthen supply chains to ensure supplies of personal protective equipment and ventilators in the event of a second wave or new pandemic; and build better on-the-ground coordination.