When will life in Australia return to normal?
Australia has been widely commended for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the rate of cases and deaths in the United States and western Europe continue to rise dramatically, Australia recorded just four new cases yesterday.
But what happens next? What's our exit plan? At what point do we go back to work, and how do we get back to life as we knew it?
A new report published by the Actuaries Institute argues that governments should assume they will need to come out of lockdown well before a vaccine is available, in order to get their economies up and running again.
The report - put together by Michael Rice, Alun Stevens, and Michael Berg - argues that Australia has a geographical advantage that can help us keep our infection rate down and "get back to normal".
"Australia has an advantage being an island in that it can test anyone arriving into the country and keep out any future transmissions," the authors write. "We are in a position that the number of infected people is at a relatively low number. From this, we should be able to triage the population and get back to normal."
At the same time, one-dimensional strategies to eliminate the virus at all costs could increase poverty and mental health-related deaths than lives saved, the authors say.
With a vaccine unlikely to be freely available before late next year, here is a proposed series of measures they recommend rolling out.
HOW DO WE 'GET BACK TO NORMAL'?
In order to return to normal, we need to trust that healthy people who get the virus will make a full recovery without hospital treatment, the report says.
It's the most at-risk people - and those living with them - who we should try to isolate, while allowing low-risk people to get back to work.
The report proposes that we gradually phase out social restrictions - perhaps by geographical region - starting with schools.
The report recommends reopening schools first "due to the low levels of health risk to younger people and the double-whammy of disrupted education for children and disrupted work for parents if schools are closed or only notionally open".
At the same time, we need a plan to efficiently handle localised outbreaks before they can spread further - by identifying, quarantining and testing people who may have been exposed to infection.
We will also need a backup lockdown plan if the strategy does not work, while acknowledging some people won't follow the rules and that some cases may be asymptomatic or mild and lead to further breakouts.
During all this, it's recommended that we keep our borders closed for now, with possible travel between cleared countries - starting with New Zealand - in the future.
It also proposes limited travel between states until they are "all clear", or until reliable tests can be carried out before travel and at points of entry.
"The risk of going early is still large but it could be managed progressively - but the risk of staying out longer will be crippling for the economy. The further risk of staying out longer once community transmitted cases have reduced to very low levels is that the community will simply stop complying.
"We can expect a slow relaxation of restrictions and a slow restarting of the economy with an ultimate return to whatever the new normal is, once a vaccine is freely available - likely to be available sometime late in 2021, but possibly earlier given the resources working on it."
WHEN WILL RESTRICTIONS EASE UP?
The Federal Government is being extremely cautious about easing up restrictions.
At an earlier press conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said we will have to live with the current COVID-19 restrictions for at least another four weeks, while the Government begins to chart a way out.
He has repeatedly stressed there are three criteria that need to be met before restrictions will be lifted: increased testing, contact tracing and greater ability to respond to local outbreaks.
"If you're going to move to an environment where there are fewer restrictions, then you need these three things in place," he said.
"National Cabinet agreed today that we will use the next four weeks to ensure that we can get these in place."
He said we are still in the "suppression" phase and would remain in that phase for a while yet.
"We are not in an eradication mode nor are we in the other mode where we would just see some sort of herd immunity approach, these are not the approaches we are following in Australia," he said.
"We are not at the Sweden end, nor are we the New Zealand end when it comes to how we're approaching things."
The Prime Minister has also indicated that social distancing measures could be in place for more than six months.
"There's no quick fix to this," he told A Current Affair last night. He said he hoped that by September, Australia would be in a "different position" in terms of the virus, at which point measures may be able to ease.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said our flattened case rate was proof social distancing measures were working, and should thus not be lifted.
He warned easing them prematurely could see us end up like the US or UK.
"If we relax the distancing measures that are stopping or reducing that community transmission, that will inevitably lead to some more outbreaks of community transmission," he said.
"Unless we are prepared as a nation to detect those outbreaks really early and get on top of them and control them and isolate the cases and quarantine the contacts, we could end up with large community outbreaks.
"That could lead to situations like we've all seen every night on the nightly news in high-income countries with good health systems like the USA and the UK."
Originally published as Australia's 'exit strategy' for virus