“The new normal” is how NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian described the current social distancing measures in place in her state, that are mirrored to a greater or lesser extent across both the nation and the world.
“The reality is that until we find a vaccine, we all have to live with this virus,” she said last week.
“And no matter what restrictions there are in the future, no matter what restrictions are potentially eased in the future, until a vaccine is found, social distancing is a way of life now. That is the new normal.”
The problem with that is it requires the public to buy into it. So far, we have. But according to some timetables we have just made our first few steps on what will be a very long road. And already we are beginning to see signs of public discontent as those in authority repeat the mantra “Do as I say, not as I do”.
So while the NSW Department of Health gets the full support of the state government in its decision to allow thousands of passengers off the Ruby Princess cruise ship, many hundreds of whom were infected with Covid-19, police are handing out $1600 fines for a mother and daughter breaching social distancing laws by taking a driving lesson (since retracted after a massive public outcry).
The list doesn’t end there, with self-confessed “idiot” New Zealand Health Minister David Clark being caught not once but twice breaching social distancing restrictions and now former NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin found staying at his holiday home on the Central Coast despite a plea for residents not to head to regional areas from the city. It’s not just those in the Southern Hemisphere, with Scotland’s chief medical officer resigning after making two trips to her second home during the coronavirus lockdown.
The point is that if those people with direct access to all the medical experts and data cannot abide by the lockdown which is barely past its first week, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Well one hope is that the national cabinet is looking at plans to use one state in a trial run of easing restrictions.
The two likely candidates are Western Australia and South Australia, which have the lowest number of cases and lowest rates community transmission.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said last week they were looking at the “road out” on restrictions.
“It is likely to be in steps and stages that we can test and reverse,” he said.
“It’s not going to happen yet.
“One of the happy challenges that we have as a consequence of the success of the recent weeks is that people are already looking beyond.
“We are very clear that we believe that this is a six-month process.
“That doesn’t mean all of the restrictions are in place, and wherever we can, we will look at those.
“But for the time being, we need to consolidate, to suppress the virus, and to win that battle and the more successful we are, the faster we will then be able to take measures.
“And those measures will likely be in gentle steps on a staged basis.
“That’s what’s being thought through and planned and consulted on now.”
Hunt has outlined three elements that need to be in place for restrictions to start lifting.
“One is clear indication that we are suppressing the case numbers in Australia – it could be case numbers, the retransmission rate, that’s all being developed into an assessment protocol,” he said.
“Two is ensuring we have rapid response capability – testing, tracing. Thirdly, once those things are achieved, is planning the steps out, which will always be gradual.”
In theory at least, we may see one state begin to open up restaurants, followed by bars and clubs and allow gatherings of up to say 50 people. If there was no significant spike in new Covid-19 cases that could be eased again after a period of eight weeks.
Other states would then be able to make their own decisions on restrictions with a greater degree of confidence.
“You will have some jurisdictions, some states and territories that might be in a position to move when others are not, then we will learn from the experience of those states that may have trialled things,’’ said Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“So the national cabinet is working together very much on this and discussing the options that are available to them and really trying to help each other with the decisions that they need to make in each and every case.”
But the final piece of the coronavirus puzzle is when will national borders open and international travel resume?
Speaking to Daily Mail Australia, Professor James Wood, from UNSW’s school of public health, said Australia will keep the travel bans and quarantine in place at least until the European and North American epidemics have subsided.
“You can’t expect the epidemics in Europe and North America to pass for two to three months,” he said. “And then the issue is that it’s everywhere else in the world now.”
To date, the coronavirus pandemic has seen around 10,000 trade fairs and exhibitions cancelled or postponed globally. But there are signs they are starting to come back online again.
In Shanghai there is hope that exhibitions may be allowed to start again in May. Shenyang New World Expo stated that the venue has received approval from the Liaoning provincial government to begin hosting exhibitions again. The first event will be organised by Shanghai Modern and run from April 27 to 29.
Informa’s Michael Duck has reported that the first show to take place again in Hong Kong is scheduled for the end of June.
The likely scenario is that global restrictions will ease in a haphazard way, which will bring its own challenges as there is bound to be a clustering of events wanting to be held at the same time.
Domestically, the closest thing we have to a timeframe is the Federal Government’s historic stimulus packages, which are going to set the nation back an eye-watering $200 billion. That’s not counting the to $50 billion chipped in by state governments. Measures such as the $130 billion JobKeeper package are limited to six months. And that is as good an end point as we have.
“There could be pent-up demand (for some industries),” economist Saul Eslake told news.com.au.
“But the holidays that aren’t taken, the meals that aren’t eaten, the visits to the cinema or the theatre that aren’t done can’t be replaced.
“So there are permanent losses.”
The simple truth is we just can’t afford to stay closed for too long unless Australia wants to be put on an economic respirator for many years to come.