Distancing 'may be needed until 2022'



New research suggests Australians eyeing an early return to life as we knew it before the coronavirus pandemic might need to get used to life in lockdown.

Scientists from Harvard University published new projections in the journal Science, predicting that social distancing measures already in place could be extended well beyond the end of the year - and, if no coronavirus vaccine is discovered, "intermittent periods of social distancing" could be required until 2022, or at the latest, even 2025.

They wrote that different scenarios could see the initial wave of infections end only for new waves to follow behind them.

"During the initial pandemic wave, many countries have adopted social distancing measures, and some, like China, are gradually lifting them after achieving adequate control of transmission," the authors wrote.

"However, to mitigate the possibility of resurgences of infection, prolonged or intermittent periods of social distancing may be required."

They wrote that transmission of SARS-CoV-2 "could resemble that of pandemic influenza by circulating seasonally after causing an initial global wave of infection".

"The pandemic and post-pandemic transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 will depend on factors including the degree of seasonal variation in transmission, the duration of immunity, and the degree of cross-immunity between SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses, as well as the intensity and timing of control measures."

"Intermittent distancing may be required into 2022 unless critical care capacity is increased substantially or a treatment or vaccine becomes available. The authors are aware that prolonged distancing, even if intermittent, is likely to have profoundly negative economic, social, and educational consequences.

"The total incidence of SARS-CoV-2 through 2025 will depend crucially on this duration of immunity and, to a lesser degree, on the amount of cross immunity that exists between (different coronaviruses)."

The predictions do not reflect comments by Australia's deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly, who addressed the media Wednesday afternoon about how soon Australians could get back to normal.

He tentatively flagged a September deadline for strict isolation measures to be softened.

"I think the six months is an indicative time," he said.

"That was given by the Prime Minister early on in relation to this to really stress that this is not a short-term thing. This is not a sprint. This is a marathon.

"There may well be during that period some opportunity because we have got on top of this so far and flattened the curve in relation to new cases in Australia. There may by some opportunity to rollback some of the restrictions.

"But at the moment we have to stay at course and the six months is an indicative time which will get us through winter, through the usual flu season and then maybe a time to reassess. But at the moment that's how it is."

Prof Kelly did say that winter is the big hurdle. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Sunrise on Wednesday morning Australia was still "many weeks" away from considering an end to restrictions.

"The National Cabinet is in the process now of looking ahead and we have done a lot of work over the last week or so in particular to look at the sort of prerequisites (to ease restrictions) … Things that need to happen before you can start considering that," Mr Morrison said.

"A lot of scientific work is being put into that and we have looked at the experiences of other countries and so we are hopeful that at some point we can move from the phase we are currently in, to a new phase, but I do want to caution Australians that we're not in that phase yet we're many weeks away I think from being in a phase like that.

"We've seen what happened Singapore, in Sweden recently. You take your eye off of this thing and it gets away from you. It writes its own rules."

- with Natalie Wolfe

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