The final advice from 22 eminent specialists from the Group of Eight research universities, seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, endorsed a major escalation, urging Australia to seize a “short and vital window” and introduce “strong, immediate and co-ordinated social distancing measures, accompanied by an enhanced COVID-19 testing regime” to be sustained in the long term.
Mr Hunt began preparing the public for the tougher measures on Tuesday after the first stage of shutdowns was enacted over the weekend. He warned the banning of all pubs, clubs and gyms was “not the last stage, and I think I should be very upfront and honest about that”.
Australian cases topped 2000 by Wednesday, after doubling in less than three days, particularly in NSW and Victoria. An eighth Australian died of the virus on Tuesday after contracting it on the Ruby Princess cruise ship, which docked in Sydney last week.
“The general direction, obviously, is about people spending more time at home, obviously keeping the distance,” Mr Hunt said. “House parties, they’re out, let me be absolutely clear on that.”
The measures are likely to see restrictions on barbecues, dinner parties and birthdays. One option being considered is restricting private gatherings to 10 people or less.
“Above all else, people don’t need to wait,” Mr Hunt said. “If you can take steps to spend time at home, do that.”
The national cabinet is expected to establish a nationally consistent approach on the definition of essential services on Tuesday night. The move will help define which businesses must close and those that can remain open.
The advice from the leading academics across epidemiology, infectious diseases, biosecurity, law, computational modelling, mental health and emergency response was requested by Professor Murphy last week and sent to Mr Hunt on Sunday in the midst of an extraordinary split between the federal government and NSW and Victoria, with the states agitating for a more hardline crackdown.
The advice backed a rapid rollout of measures that would include “more extensive banning of mass gatherings, school closure or class dismissal”.
“While the stronger measures recommended increase the upfront cost of action, there is evidence that it increases the likelihood of a speedier move to a national social and economic recovery phase,” the group advised.
“Interventions need to be comprehensive and simultaneous to have the most impact – a slow trickle of interventions, or suburb-by-suburb lockdowns likely will not be adequate.”
Mr Morrison on Sunday flagged that suburbs could be isolated and locked down one by one as the crisis escalated.
A minority of experts in the group had argued for a localised and phased approach to school closures and other interventions, based on the particular spread of COVID-19 in different areas.
They highlighted the benefits of keeping schools open, including managing children’s social distancing and hygiene. That position is closer to the one adopted by the Morrison government so far.
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The expert group also recommended the government urgently roll out a “much-enhanced and co-ordinated regime of COVID-19 testing” that would include community testing to estimate the rates of disease in the population.
On Monday, Mr Hunt said 135,000 tests had been conducted in Australia and a further 1.5 million kits had been ordered. The scale of testing has been constrained by the short supply of kits. Universities are also developing testing methods.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra