Prime Minister Scott Morrison has today announced a three-step plan to lift Australia’s COVID-19 restrictions. The framework, which is to be implemented by the states in their own time frame, includes restaurants and cafes opening for 10 people in stage one, increasing to gatherings of 100 people in stage three. Below, Australian experts comment on the plan.

Dr Abrar Chughtai is a medically trained epidemiologist in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW Sydney.

“I think the Australian government has adopted the right approach to open gradually, while monitoring the number of cases. We know that these social restrictions have huge financial implications but we need to balance risks versus benefits.

At this stage, the number of cases is very low and the epidemic is under control here. So, at this stage, these are the best options to open gradually and see what happens. If the number of cases starts increasing, we need to close again.

We should ensure adequate testing capacity and contact tracing and isolation mechanisms.

It is very important to analyse testing data and assess the magnitude of asymptomatic infections.

Asymptomatic infections may drive the next wave of cases in Australia.

In that case, we might need to consider using universal face masks to reduce community spread, without using strict social isolation measures. Now it is the responsibility of the public as well to follow the government’s instructions. They need to keep a safe distance, stay home if sick, and seek medical advice and use the COVIDsafe app.”

Professor Adrian Esterman is a Professor of Biostatistics, UniSA Clinical and Health Sciences.

“With an effective reproduction number close to zero, the gradual dismantling of the restrictions put in place to prevent thousands of deaths is a sensible approach to take.

The careful phasing of the lifting of restrictions will allow us to act quickly should the number of new cases start increasing.

However, in order for it to work, we must continue to undertake surveillance testing to ensure that community-acquired cases are under control, and the general public should still practice careful handwashing, and not go out if they have any symptoms.”

Associate Professor Taghrid Istivan is Associate Professor of Microbiology and Senior Program Leader – Biosciences at RMIT University.

“As there is no hope to get an effective vaccine within the next few months, it is not possible to keep Australia and its economy locked down for longer, and I think it is time to start easing these restrictions in several steps. However, we need to have clear infection control habits within the community to avoid large outbreaks from happening, like those in aged care homes and food factories.

Social distancing, and hand and personal hygiene are very important to stay in place.”

Prof Ian Hickie AM is Co-Director Health and Policy at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre.

“The relaxing of social restrictions is likely to have some immediate mental health benefits. We rely on social contacts, particularly with our close family and friends, to deal effectively with the anxiety and distress caused by the economic and social disruption that COVID19 has inflicted on all of us.

If there are also significant economic benefits, this may help to reduce some of the additional harm that has been done to the Australian community.”

Dr Adrienne Withall is a Senior Research Fellow in Ageing and Mental Health at UNSW Sydney.

“It’s great to see some relaxation of the rules regarding sizes of [groups of] people in private homes and public places. This is really down to the dedication of the Australian people in respecting social distancing and isolation rules, and the government and health services in testing and tracing. The Aboriginal community in particular have been leaders in this response through clear messaging to community and early intervention.

These changes will make a big difference in restoring a sense of normality in people’s lives and will pay dividends in improving people’s quality of life and mental health. The lifting of restrictions around community centres and libraries is going to be especially important for older people. This is a key group at particular risk of isolation and loneliness during this pandemic. Getting people out and about and moving around in their local area, while still respecting social distancing, will improve mood and physical health. Whilst we are seeing infection rates go down, we need to remember that the social, mental and physical health impacts of COVID-19 might be with us for some time. This is a big step in the right direction.”