Coronavirus: What will happen when we reach phase 2?


Designated supermarket times, restrictions on public transport and a shift in working hours could become the new norm in Australia if the government's new measures fail to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

There are now more than 1600 cases of COVID-19 across the nation, and health experts say the doubling rate - the time in days it takes for the number of people infected to double - is currently higher than it should be.

Last night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a raft of new measures to contain the spread of the virus. Since midday today all pubs, bars, nightclubs, cinemas, casinos, indoor sporting venues, entertainment venues and places of worship have been closed nationwide.

"I want to stress, this is stage one of this response," the PM said. "It will be reviewed on a monthly basis."

So if this is stage one, what might the next phase look like?


Professor Mary Louise McLaws, an advisor to the World Health Organisation and infection control expert, said most COVID-19 cases in Australia have been related to travel.

She told the most important thing we should be doing at this stage is frequent checks on recent travellers, to ensure they're being diligent about remaining in self-isolation for 14 days.

She said "mandatory face-to-face monitoring" of recent travellers was crucial, whether through random home visits, and a designated phone or the use of electronic bracelets.

Failing this, and if the infection rate continues to soar, Prof McLaws warns that the rules and restrictions in Australia are likely to become more harsh.

Last night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced new measures to contain the spread of the virus. Picture: Gary Ramage
Last night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced new measures to contain the spread of the virus. Picture: Gary Ramage



Prof McLaws said it's "likely" Australia will end up with a time-shared grocery-shopping system to ensure everyone can purchase essential items without coming into close physical contact with one another.

China's Hubei province implemented time-shared supermarket trips, where one member per household was allowed out to shop every few days.

"I think just having one family member (per household) going out for groceries helps enormously," she said.

She says it will be at least another week before we know how effective our new measures will be.

"If we don't start seeing a decrease in our doubling of cases, we'll have to start enforcing more," she said.

At present, Australia's COVID-19 cases are doubling roughly every three days. Prof McLaws says we need to lower this to six days or more, which is about the rate that starts to flatten curve and helps us avoid ending up in a Europe-level health catastrophe.

Essential services such as supermarkets, pharmacies, transport and access to health workers will remain safe and open. But the way we use them may change.

An example of this is staggering the start and finish times that people work, to ensure those who still have to catch public transport can still keep an appropriate physical distance from each other.

She also said buses should either provide hand wipes or have a cleaner, which would "send a great message" about cleanliness and social distancing.

Australia could end up with a time-shared grocery system.
Australia could end up with a time-shared grocery system.


Prof McLaws stressed the need for a broader information campaign, with clear and direct messages encouraging people to be conscious of when they speak and how they interact with others.

"We can't keep that magic 2.5-metre distance. The flu has taught us that, and we don't know how far COVID-19 can spread. So let's try and reduce the spread in other ways."

She also said medical professionals, such as therapists, should be allowed to conduct online appointments to minimise contact while still providing essential services to people.

At this stage, Australia's future measures are hypotheticals. But Prof McLaws suggested we're playing catch-up next to our neighbours in New Zealand.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern today announced that the country would upgrade to a level 4 response to the virus in 48 hours. Level 4 means people will be instructed to stay at home, schools and universities will be closed, as well as non-essential businesses, major reprioritisation of health services, and severely limited travel.

New Zealand currently has 103 confirmed cases of COVID-19, while Australia has more than 15 times that number.

Prof McLaws praised New Zealand's approach, saying our neighbours are doing "exactly the right thing" to combat the spread of COVID-19.

"We should've gone all-out a while ago," Prof McLaws said. "I think New Zealand is doing a great job, because they've isolated themselves from the rest of the world, and now they will go into lockdown for a short period. Once they believe they've got a handle, they'll be able to relax their rules inside the country, but remain isolated."

Above all, she said it was important to take decisive action earlier on, rather than wait until things get bad. "You've got to make tough practical decisions early on, and the numbers will reflect that.

"But instead, the numbers are now driving what we're doing."

Originally published as What will happen when we reach phase 2?