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There’s more than luck to Australia’s response to Covid-19

Early, decisive action saved Australian lives

Social critic Donald Horne labelled Australia “the lucky country” in 1964. “Australia is a lucky country run by second rate people who share its luck… most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise,” he wrote.

This self-effacing mantra has since loomed large in Australia’s national psyche. But the country’s successful response to the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be attributed to luck alone. Nor were our leaders taken by surprise as many were in Europe and the United States.

Much has been written about the Asia’s successful responses to Covid-19: Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. We should not forget that SARS gave these countries a chastening test run. Since 2003, they have planned for future pandemics and were quick to respond to Covid-19. But further afield, there is a nation with a similar culture, health system and political structure to the UK that is dealing extraordinarily well.

Australia’s first confirmed Covid-19 case was identified less than a week prior to the UK’s. Yet Australia has had fewer than 7,000 confirmed cases and under 100 deaths — 77 times fewer than the UK as a proportion of the population.

Australia’s success can be attributed to a combination of early border closures, aggressive testing and tracing, and, yes, some geographic good fortune.

On the face of it, Australia is well-positioned to cope with a novel pandemic. Geographic isolation is a natural advantage in managing the spread of a virus. However, strong social and economic ties with China presented a significant risk of imported transmissions.

There are 200,000 Chinese international students enrolled at Australia’s universities, many of whom were set to return for the start of the academic year in February, 1.4 million Chinese tourists to Australia annually, and 600,000 Australian residents arrive back from China each year.

On February 1, Australia banned entry for all non-citizens who had been in China within the last 14 days. This was labelled by some as an overreaction. Yet the Government resisted calls from the university and tourism sectors — crucial pillars of the national economy — to hastily reopen the border.

Travel restrictions subsequently escalated. On March 15, all new arrivals were ordered by law to self-isolate for 14 days. A week later, all non-residents were banned from entering the country. Several Australian states have implemented unprecedented border controls and quarantine orders. Returning citizens are escorted from airports to 14-day quarantine in a hotel, funded by the taxpayer.

European countries including the UK refused to close the border with China following advice from the World Health Organization. Europe’s first large outbreak has been linked to workers returning to factories in Northern Italy from Wuhan after Chinese New Year. Some European borders began closing in March. The UK is yet to take any measures on this front — other than now-withdrawn voluntary guidelines for new arrivals from hotspots to self-isolate in February.

Test, test, test. That’s the lesson from down under. Australia has sought to identify every single incidence of COVID-19. There have been over 390,000 tests, ranking close to the top among nations in testing per capita. Australia continues to test broadly, swabbing any patient with flu-like symptoms — not just those with links to high-risk areas or known cases. Testing is now widely available through the public and private health systems.

The UK’s Coronavirus action plan, released on March 3, was far less ambitious. In the “contain” phase the UK sought to only “detect early cases”. In the “delay” phase, activated a few weeks later, the Government was only seeking to “slow the spread”, and stopped testing in the community. This strategy — designed for an H1N1-style influenza pandemic and colloquially known as allowing for “herd immunity” to develop — proved clinically and politically untenable, leading to a strict social distancing regime.

Australia has also instigated strict social distancing, movement restrictions and business closures. But this came much earlier than the UK, reducing transmission and strain on hospitals. They were supported by an economic package of AU$320 billion, which served to calm the public and limit job losses. Australia is now planning a phased withdrawal of the lockdown.

The politics have also been well-managed. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison established a new National Cabinet, formed of all state and territory leaders, to coordinate the nation’s response. This was essential as Australia’s states are responsible for healthcare delivery and policing, while the federal government controls the borders. It has proven a political masterstroke, tying leaders from across the political spectrum to a single coordinated approach — in stark contrast to likes of America’s haphazard federal squabbles.

Australia has bought herself time. The government is working closely with hospitals to triple ICU capacity, and efforts are being made to produce medical equipment domestically to reduce reliance on China. Finally, Australia is able to closely monitor successful policies from other nations.

Australia has had fewer than 7,000 confirmed cases and under 100 deaths — 77 times fewer than the UK as a proportion of the population.

The country’s response has not been perfect. Some police action, and specific restrictions, have been heavy-handed. Western Australia quietly announced, over the Easter Weekend, police surveillance of citizens using ankle bracelets, automated licence plate tracking, drone surveillance, and the abolition of the “right to silence” when questioned by police. While some of these measures may be justified, elements do not involve sunset clauses. As with elsewhere, Covid-19 risks being used to justify serious encroachments on liberty that may remain post-crisis.

While it is too late for Britain to emulate Australia’s approach, there are some lessons. First, mass testing, combined with app-based contact tracing, can identify further outbreaks. Second, as a fellow island nation, the UK must consider what steps can be taken on her border. Even if the UK gets the situation under control, cases could be imported back into the country, particularly from parts of the developing world. Notably, the emergency law passed in March gave the Home Secretary the power to close ports and airports. This power has not yet been used. There are still over 100,000 arrivals to the UK each week.

The path ahead for all countries is treacherous. Preventing a second wave will not be easy. But we can apply important lessons to better manage the impact of Covid-19 and strengthen our responses to future pandemics.

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