Lifting lock-downs safely
Australia is easing COVID-19 “lock-downs” at slightly different speeds in different states. The aim is to restart economic activity, and give relief from isolation, without causing further waves of the virus. I think we can do more to protect the vulnerable in this process. We should do that, for reasons both moral and practical.
The moral reason for protecting the vulnerable is that they have much more at stake. There is an enormous disparity in the effects of COVID-19, illustrated by fatality rates for different age groups. Consequently, the risks of easing restrictions fall primarily on the vulnerable. Has enough weight been given to that in deciding how the restrictions are relaxed?
I have my doubts on that as regards the first stage of Australia’s 3-step framework, with its focus on connecting with friends and family. For many, elderly relatives may be their top priority to visit. Allowing this in the first step implies low risk, but limited availability of testing makes it difficult for visitors to know whether they have COVID-19. It may also make it more difficult for vulnerable people to take a cautious approach to visitors. They may be reluctant to turn them away or find it hard to observe social distancing with visiting loved ones.
There are a few practical reasons why we should protect vulnerable persons. If many contract the virus, their care will impose the greatest strain on our health system. Many are not in the workforce and can potentially be protected in ways that would be impractical for the entire population. Their protection may have fewer negative effects for the economy and potentially even significant positive effects.
These issues may be significant in steps 2 and 3 of Australia’s framework, which among other things permit local/regional recreational travel and then interstate travel. Many retirees travelled extensively before COVID-19, but will they consider it safe to resume domestic travel now? Some may not without further assurance given that steps 2 and 3 also lift other restrictions to permit larger gatherings and a progressive reopening of business. Since the virus has not yet been eradicated, further outbreaks would not be surprising. Vulnerable people may well choose to stay at home and watch to see if that occurs. If many do so, it will sideline much of the demand for domestic travel and hospitality.
What could be done to provide greater protection to the vulnerable in easing the restrictions on domestic travel? Many approaches may be possible but let me give one that draws on the idea of “havens” I raised in April. I will outline how this might work in Victoria, the most cautious state regarding easing restrictions.
Victoria could introduce a new exception to its “stay at home” directions to allow persons to leave their premises to travel to (alone or with other persons residing at the same premises) and stay at an accommodation facility (“haven”) that only accepts persons who:
· provide a negative COVID-19 test result
· provide a statutory declaration that they have self-isolated (or resided at a haven and observed social distancing) since the test was taken, and
· agree to observe the restrictions (and social distancing guidelines), treating their room/suite etc at the haven as their ordinary place of residence for the period of their stay.
These conditions could be more/less stringent, depending on what experts think best. Essentially, the approach would be to let those who test negative travel to and stay in holiday accommodation that is available only to such persons. Arguably, this should not materially increase the risk of spreading COVID-19. To the extent that it encourages those who don’t have the virus to relocate to less densely populated regional and remote areas, it may even reduce that risk.
Benefits of an approach along these lines could include:
· Jump starting the domestic travel/hospitality industry without materially increasing transmission of COVID-19. If this was introduced soon, while most restrictions are still in place, it may provide an attractive opportunity for a safe change of scenery.
· Supporting regional communities and businesses, including those affected by bushfires.
· If there are further outbreaks of COVID-19 as restrictions are eased, this measure need not be wound back as it does not increase the risk of transmission. In fact, if there are further outbreaks, some vulnerable city-dwellers may feel safer staying in less populated areas.
· Potentially, facilitating international travel with countries that have similar restrictions and protocols.