Banning visitors from China stopped Australia suffering a coronavirus outbreak like the UK’s, an infectious diseases expert has said.
Australia has suffered 93 deaths COVID-19 related deaths, far fewer than the UK’s toll of more than 26,000, which gave it the third worst death toll in the world, behind the US and Italy.
Australia has recorded 6,700 cases, of which 5,700 have recovered, while the UK has confirmed more than 171,000 cases.
Professor Sharon Lewin, the head of Australia’s Doherty Institute, highlighted Australian prime minister Scott Morrison’s “brilliant” decision to stop foreign travellers arriving from China, which she said prevented a widespread outbreak.
Australia’s action differs heavily from the UK’s, which decided against shutting its borders.
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Although both locked down, implementing stay-at-home policies and banning non-essential movements, Australian states are set to ease up restrictions, with health minister Greg Hunt saying: “We are winning but we have not won yet.”
Each state has variations of the lockdown, but social distancing measures and restrictions on non-essential businesses were in place by late March.
The UK banned gatherings, restricted trips outside of the home to essential purposes and also shut non-essential businesses on 23 March, but remains under lockdown and suffers hundreds of deaths a day.
The government is yet to set out an exit strategy.
Besides banning foreign travellers arriving from China, Australia also prevented anyone who had spent time in China in the previous two weeks from arriving from February 1, which prof Lewin said stopped a widespread outbreak.
“For me, I (initially) thought that was a terrible decision, I’ll say honestly, and the World Health Organization, too, said that blocking flights was the worst thing that you could do for a global health crisis,” she said.
“But it saved Australia, because it actually stopped seeding at the very beginning.”
Although Italy and the US also stopped flights from China at about the same time, and have gone on to suffer bad outbreaks, prof Lewin said they still had arrivals from Chinese nationals and people who had visited China from other countries.
In the UK, however, deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam told a press briefing in April that scientists had been clear closing borders “would not work”.
“I understand the point you’re making and I see where you’re coming from, in terms of when we get this under control, doesn’t that change the situation,” he told reporters.
“But (it) won’t go from a position of widespread community transmission amongst our own people to a position of zero transmission amongst our own people, which of course was the case back in December 2019.
“We will likely go back to low levels of transmission and the virus will continue to be here in and around us in our communities, I suspect for a very long time, even if we can keep the levels right down.”
He has also said that screening arrivals would not work as they may be infected but not show symptoms, or the virus could be incubating as they travel, before developing signs of the virus after arriving in the UK.
Prof Lewin has also said that Australia’s health experts began putting together a prevention strategy for if a similar outbreak – as was playing out in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged – came to the country.
“In early January, across the world, no one was really thinking about [COVID-19]. But in Australia everyone was thinking about it,” prof Lewin said.
“They were designing tests and everyone was very worried about it coming here.”
The UK’s preparedness has been criticised because of fears about limited personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS and care workers and limited testing capacity earlier in the UK’s outbreak.
When England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries, claimed the UK has been an “international exemplar in preparedness”, she was criticised by health workers, who branded her comments as “patronising”.
The government has since ramped up its testing, carrying out more than 80,000 in the space of 24 hours earlier in the week, and organised shipments of PPE, though the way those imports have been organised has also drawn criticism.