Could a traffic light-type COVID-19 system work in Australia?

Could a traffic light-type virus system work in Australia? Picture: Shutterstock

Could a traffic light-type virus system work in Australia? Picture: Shutterstock

Across the world, countries are struggling with ways of containing and monitoring regional breakouts of COVID-19 without tough mechanisms which disadvantage broader, unaffected areas around these specific hotspots.

Across Australia's states and territories, hard border lockdowns are being used as a blunt tool to keep the virus at bay.

While this containment tool has been largely effective (so far), it has split families, closed businesses, drained government coffers and drawn down heavily on emergency and operational resources which would be better deployed elsewhere.

Major inconsistencies exist in how the various jurisdictions are tackling the issue and frustration is building around the country, attaching stigmatism to states like Victoria where broad regional swathes of the state are being adversely affected when, in fact, many are COVID-free and have been so for months.

As states such as Queensland and Western Australia maintain their tough border restrictions, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is desperate for a national solution to avoid what he has described as "a retreat into provincialism" he identified as a "recipe for economic ruin".

What if there was a smarter way to achieve the same result as border containment without all this us-and-them state and territory divisiveness, together with the associated social and economic upheaval?

It seems there is, and the national cabinet has been briefed on such a system.

A country known for its innovative thinking, Denmark has developed a traffic light-type hotspot-identifying system which may well be the clever solution, easily adapted for Australia.

So how does this 'traffic light' system work?

Just like the traffic light, there are three phases. In Denmark, a region is considered "green" and "safe" if there are fewer than 20 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over a week. Canberra, which hasn't had a new case of COVID-19 in seven weeks, would thereby be considered "green".

A region in Denmark shifts to orange, or critical, when more than 20 people per 100,000 contract COVID-19 in a week, meaning travellers must quarantine.

If the number of cases rises higher again, the area automatically shifts into the red which means a lockdown for that area comes into effect, with people banned from from leaving that area, or travelling into the area. The threshold numbers would need to be tweaked to suit Australia's population densities and requirements and there may be different thresholds which apply between regional and urban areas.

Would it work in Australia?

Provided all the premiers and chief ministers agree on a cohesive, standardised national approach, then there's no reason why it shouldn't.

Denmark's thresholds are structured for a country of 5.8 million people, spread out in an area less than two-thirds the size of Tasmania. Clearly it's not fully suited to our wide, brown land. Using postcodes as the identifiers would appear to be the most logical approach for Australia.

A postcoded national map, with the areas colour-coded to identify their current status, would be easy to understand and could be updated quickly. Travellers could log into a national online site to identify those "green" areas to where they could safely travel.

There would still need to be strict checks on people in quarantine, and tough monitoring applied within those areas sitting on a "red", or critical setting.

But it certainly beats the broad-brush, keep-those-Victorians-out approach which applies now.

What are the main advantages of this system?

It's transparent, easy to understand, and allows for rapid updating online should a COVID-19 hotspot suddenly emerge in a particular area, as it has a tendency to do.

Health and emergency services would quickly know the specific areas in which to focus resources and testing. Contact tracing would be simplified, too.

It would open up regional road travel significantly for business and pleasure and permit people to travel across borders, provided they only travelled from one "green" area to another. Logically, anyone travelling from an orange area into a green area, for instance, would be required to report their trip intention, self-isolate and quarantine for 14 days at an approved location once they arrived within that green area.

Special arrangements would need to be made to assist those with visual conditions, such as colour-blindness.

Would it help to open up domestic air travel?

To a certain extent, although not completely because people living in "green" areas may have to travel through "orange" areas to reach their local air travel hub, or regional airport. How rules are applied in these circumstances would be one of the finer points of discussion.

But it would allow airlines to quickly start planning and opening routes between the recognisable "green" air hubs. For instance, as both Canberra and Hobart/southern Tasmania would be seen under this system as "green" areas, this would be an easy identifier for planning air services without the need for people travelling to and fro to enter quarantine.

But how would authorities enforce such a system?

In much the same way as they do now, but within smaller geographic areas.

The difficulty would be with very large regional parts of the country where one hotspot could be a country town thousands of kilometres from another, unaffected part of the same postcode.

How has it worked in Denmark?

From all accounts, very well. The Danish government was among the first in Europe to act firmly against the virus by declaring a national lockdown and closing its borders.

Daycare centres, schools and universities were very quickly shut down and air travel was severely restricted. The country is now cautiously reopening.

Last week, Prime Minister Morrison praised the Danish model, describing it as a "sensible" system.

"I'm not suggesting this is precisely what we do in Australia but ... they have clear metrics," he said.

This story Could a traffic light-type COVID-19 system work in Australia? first appeared on The Canberra Times.