If Australia does not close its borders to travellers the country runs the risk of experiencing Italy’s exponential rise in coronavirus cases.
Chief executive of the Grattan Institute Dr John Daley said Australia could go one of two ways now the nation had passed the 100-case mark.
“You can either close your air borders, or you can shut down a significant amount of community activity now,” he said.
While Australia has had limited community transmission so far, Dr Daley said if governments waited before shutting down schools, universities and public events, the outbreak could grow out of control.
“The reality is once you see significant community transmission, then without doing those things you wind up looking like Italy pretty quickly, and by pretty quickly I mean in two weeks,” he said.
“You’re running a very significant risk that sooner or later someone gets off a plane, doesn’t realise they have it, goes to some big event, infects 30 people, they move on and infect three or four people each and then it’s just too hard to track.”
In an article published on the Grattan website, Dr Daley said Australia could either follow countries that saw a rapid spread of disease including China, Iran and Italy, or follow Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong with a slower, managed increase in cases.
Italy had gone from fewer than 100 cases to more than 10,000 in about two weeks.
Dr Daley said the countries with a slower increase in cases had introduced widespread social distancing – “aggressive efforts” that had come at a real economic cost but appeared to be successful.
Across Australia there were 122 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of 8pm on Wednesday. Cases have been confirmed in every state, in people arriving from countries including China initially, but also Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Iran, Italy and the US.
The bulk of cases (64) were in Sydney, and NSW Health was managing the only community outbreak which had reached into two schools, an aged care facility, the Australian Defence Force and a hospital.
Australia has placed a travel ban on Italy in response to the country’s increased outbreak. Italy on Tuesday instituted its own country-wide lockdown.
UNSW Professor Marylouise McLaws, an infection control expert and adviser to the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 preparedness group, said Italy waited too long to close its borders, and Australia should learn from that mistake by “going in early and going hard”.
“Now is the time to keep the border security ramped up,” she said.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said Australia has had quite an aggressive containment method from early on, and we were behind the infection rate of many countries and there was no reason for panic.
“We are still in containment mode. How long we stay in that mode depends on the success of our public health interventions over the next few weeks,” he said.
The organisers of Dark Mofo in Tasmania said they were cancelling the June festival, however other major events including the Easter Show and Grand Prix were going ahead, for now.
But unless border controls were strengthened, including banning travel from the US, Professor McLaws said people should not be attending those events.
“If we bolstered our border protection, if we isolated the whole country … then you can continue to have the Grand Prix,” she said.
Dr Daley said the cost of waiting for further community spread before enforcing stricter social distancing would be high.
“You are running a very substantial risk this will eventually get out into the community and that will have a significant increase in deaths, particularly amongst older people, and you will wind up implementing a whole bunch of social distancing anyway,” he said.
Dr Daley said all of the choices in terms of trying to minimise the impact of COVID-19 were “pretty unpalatable”.
“All of the choices from here are going to cause a lot of damage to somebody, so we are really in the world of trying to find the least worst option.”