Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy has said the current global understanding of the virus is the total number of infections is about five times the number of serious cases. If even half of the $1 billion goes to hospital costs, it means hundreds of thousands of Australians are likely to be infected under this scenario.
Britain is hoping to limit infections to a best case scenario of 13 million people – 20 per cent of its population.
State governments are yet to sign up to the proposed deal, with negotiations continuing ahead of next Friday’s COAG meeting of state and commonwealth health ministers.
Leading virologist Ian Mackay, from the University of Queensland, said $1 billion was “likely to be a good beginning figure” for responding to the coronavirus outbreak, but much remained unknown about how quickly it would spread in Australia.
“It’s a good starting point,” Associate Professor Mackay said.
“The issue right now is that we have a rough idea of how many people are likely to be infected, get sick, be hospitalised and might die, but we don’t know over what period of time that might happen.”
Mr Morrison said the $1 billion figure was “just an estimate” and that the total spend would be “demand driven”.
Professor Mackay said if the virus spread widely and quickly, there was a risk the hospital system would not be able to cope with “a big surge of people who can’t breathe” due to respiratory illness. Hospitals only had so many respirators and acute patients could require treatment “for weeks at a time”, he said.
British chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty has said the UK government’s modelling suggests 50 per cent of its coronavirus cases will emerge over a three-week period and 95 per cent of the cases over a nine-week period, warning this would put the National Health Service under “huge pressure”.
The UK government is planning for a worst case scenario of up to 80 per cent of the population – 53 million people – being infected, while hoping for only 20 per cent.
Australia’s deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly told reporters in Canberra on Friday that Britain was in a different position, saying: “England is in the middle of a flu epidemic in the middle of their winter”.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government was planning for the “most likely scenario” but “the modelling is evolving all of the time”.
Associate Professor Mackay said it remained unclear whether Australia would be able to quickly contain the spread, saying he did not expect the same rapid peak and containment of the virus as happened in China, because the Chinese government “has done things that we won’t be able to replicate”.
The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine President John Bonning said governments must act quickly to boost testing capability and set up “appropriately staffed” respiratory and fever clinics and be prepared to cancel, or move to the private sector, non-urgent elective surgeries to increase surge capacity.
“We will also need to significantly increase hospital ICU and in-patient capacity generally,” Dr Bonning said.
Any Commonwealth funding provided under the deal will be in addition to expected investments in Medicare telehealth rebates for GPs, pathology testing, a mass media public information campaign and telephone information lines.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.