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With thousands of deaths avoided, state’s new life starts at midnight

Pandemic restrictions are being eased and refined from midnight. The head of Queensland Health says the hospital system is ready for whatever comes next.

May 15, 2020, updated May 15, 2020
Queensland Health Director-General John Wakefield. (Photo: AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Queensland Health Director-General John Wakefield. (Photo: AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Director-General Dr John Wakefield told InQueensland the health response to date had avoided potentially thousands of deaths and put the hospital system in a much stronger position for any increase in cases of COVID-19.

Initial surge planning, based on overseas data, had anticipated 800,000 hospital cases in Queensland by now, 50,000 of those requiring intensive care.

As of Friday, there had been 1,054 cases in total throughout the pandemic, most since recovered, and six deaths.

“We are an absolute outlier, we have done an amazing job in containing and suppressing the spread of this disease,” Wakefield said.

The surge planning had five phases, but has now been rewritten in favour of what Wakefield and staff have labelled “phase zero”. It involves the system continuing to offer normal services whilst also being on alert for COVID-19 and able to respond to any outbreaks more rapidly and effectively.

Wakefield said the public health response led by Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young, especially the border closures championed by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, had proved successful and silenced the critics. Queenslanders, he said, had risen to the challenge of keeping each other safe and bought more time for the system to prepare.

Testing has been ramped up, contact-tracing improved, and community awareness heightened. As restrictions are eased, Wakefield acknowledged the potential for an increase in cases but said fever clinics were ready, staff were being supplied with Personal Protective Equipment, and there was still spare capacity in hospitals.

The federal Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, today said there were only 50 COVID-19 patients in hospitals nationally, 12 of those on ventilators. With hospitals running at 50-60 per cent capacity, Murphy encouraged the resumption of elective surgery at the states’ discretion, as is occurring in Queensland.

After a National Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested the focus had shifted from the infection curve to the economic curve. Morrison said the easing of restrictions was a welcome sign that governments were working to get businesses, and people, back to work. He acknowledged the unemployment outlook remained bleak, and that governments and banks were unable to cushion the blow forever, saying economic growth remained a priority.

“The clocking is ticking in terms of how far and how much can be done,” Morrison said.

From midnight Friday in Queensland, gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed, under certain circumstances, and pools, parks, libraries and public spaces will be reopened. Hiking trails will be accessible, but not yet campgrounds, while businesses with a COVID-19 plan will be able to partially open cafes, pubs, clubs, beauty and nail salons.

From May 25, all Queensland students will be able to return to school, and the NSW border restrictions will be reviewed at the end of the month (the federal and NSW governments want the border reopened). Under the current Queensland government roadmap, the broader restrictions are set to be eased again on June 12 and July 10.

Dr Young today implored people to follow the rules, continue social distancing, stay at home if sick, wash their hands and avoid crowded places.

“If we can’t safely release these restrictions, it will make it very difficult … to release more of those restrictions going forward,” the Chief Health Officer warned.

Before the National Cabinet meeting, Palaszczuk announced some of the Queensland changes this weekend had been fine-tuned: Fraser, Moreton and North Stradbroke islands would be open for day-trippers; while in outback areas, where locals will be allowed to travel 500km instead of 150km on day trips, people will also be allowed to stay with family or friends overnight.

Palaszczuk said she hoped local vacations would be allowed for the June school holidays.

Morrison reflected on there having been more inter-governmental meetings in the past two months than the previous 10 years, declaring “Australia’s federation has stood up.”

Health Minister Steven Miles, who has been visiting Townsville in his new role as Deputy Premier, today announced an expansion of dialysis services at Townsville University Hospital. Miles took the opportunity to praise the community for their response to the pandemic disruptions and call for ongoing vigilance.

His federal counterpart, Greg Hunt, announced more funding for mental health, amid concerns of an increase in suicides as the impacts of the pandemic and economic crisis are felt by the community.

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