New research shows ‘bubble’ option could allow for greater freedoms
For four long weeks, Australians have been staying home under an effective national lockdown involving the closure of the nation's beaches, pubs, restaurants and cafes.
But now new research has proposed a way forward that may allow for greater freedoms in the coming weeks, while protecting the nation from a second wave of deadly infections.
And it could be good news for Friday night drinks after work in the post-COVID era, which the research suggests is an acceptable risk as long as you are not introducing new faces.
It proposes limiting your social networks and creating your own "bubble" of relatives and friends and work colleagues, even after restrictions are eased, to limit your exposure.
The Cornell University research suggests the bubble concept or staying within your "village" could prove critical in the next phase to keep flattening the curve while allowing greater freedoms.
"Providing a concrete example for a post-lockdown world, if people only interact with others that live within three blocks, more than 30 transmission events would be necessary for a disease to travel 100 blocks,'' the research states.
"Workplaces, where many individuals need to come together, can similarly implement routines to limit contact between groups that live in the same geographically distinct areas. The more similar a potential contact is, the closer he/she lives, and the more organisations that are shared (eg, working in the same team; children in the same classroom), then the lower the comparative risk to keeping this contact."
The research predicts that the lifting of some restrictions where safe to do so will become more desirable because of the adverse social, psychological and economic consequences of a complete or near-complete lockdown.
"Our models demonstrate that while social distancing measures clearly do flatten the curve, strategic reduction of contact can strongly increase their efficiency, introducing the possibility of allowing some social contact while keeping risks low,'' the research states.
"Once the first peak of the epidemic has passed and strict restrictions can be eased, such longer-term strategies are likely to be needed to avoid a resurgence of an unhindered second wave of infection."
The idea of creating a bubble has been previously raised by NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
In her home bubble in New Zealand, she lives with her partner Clark Gayford, their daughter Neve and her parents.
In her work bubble, Ms Ardern has previously revealed she works with a "very small group of staff" and they have worked to ensure their bubbles don't interact with anyone else.
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has quietly adopted a similar approach moving his wife Jenny and two daughters to Canberra as he grapples with the coronavirus crisis.
But his family tribe at the Lodge also includes his recently widowed mum Marion Morrison, who the family didn't want to leave behind in Sydney without relatives to care for her.
The Cornell University research suggests that it is a good idea to care for relatives and friends.
It warns that policymakers must also be mindful of the human cost of the lockdown including depression and isolation.
"Fully quarantining non-infected, psychologically vulnerable individuals over prolonged periods can have severe mental health consequences and the strain of isolation can foster a rise in stress, negative emotions and domestic violence,'' the research paper states.
"Due to these costs, compliance with recommendations to strategically reduce contact is likely to be higher than compliance with complete isolation. Targeted recommendations for the strategic alteration of social contacts can mitigate psychological and physical harm as well as going a long way to contain of COVID-19 and, thus, keep the curve flat in the longer run."
Allowing greater flexibility within your bubble of contacts to catch up and socialise could also help manage rising compliance fatigue among citizens. In the event of an outbreak, it also makes it easier to contact trace.
During previous outbreaks, for example the SARS virus, social distancing measures such as workplace closures, limitation on public gatherings and travel restrictions were implemented.
The research notes there is mixed evidence of the effectiveness of school closures on respiratory infections, possibly because of timing of school closures in the outbreak, or its effect only on school-aged children.
In Australia, the Morrison Government is proposing a mobile phone app to track contacts. But building your own bubble of local neighbours and work colleagues even when restrictions are eased could also prove a good back-up plan.
Samantha Maiden is news.com.au's national political editor | @samanthamaiden