The ACT government has declared a public health emergency for the territory in response to the spread of COVID-19.
This is the first time a public health emergency has been declared in the ACT. It is clear signal to the community of the seriousness of the situation and that we will need your help in the coming months to help slow the spread of the virus.
A declaration of a public health emergency allows the Chief Health Officer to take necessary actions, or give necessary directions, to protect Canberrans from the risk posed by the rapid spread of COVID-19.
As of Monday, March 16, 2020, there currently only two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the ACT - but we are expecting many more cases in the coming days, weeks and months. The spread of this virus, and how we respond, will have a profound impact on life in Canberra in the months and years ahead.
The response to the spread of COVID-19 is not something that we will tackle alone, though.
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has established a national cabinet, comprising the Prime Minister, premiers and chief ministers, to manage Australia's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This isn't a time for party politics - it is a time where all Australian governments need to be united on how to best respond to this public health crisis.
Based on expert health advice, the national cabinet agreed that the core objective now is to slow the outbreak of COVID-19 in Australia by taking additional steps to reduce community transmission. We must ensure our health system can care for the most vulnerable, in particular the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.
This includes the requirement that non-essential, organised public outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people should not occur. This is a risk-minimisation approach to slowing the spread of the virus, or "flattening the curve" as many have been describing.
At this stage, there is no requirement for schools to close. ACT public schools are operating a modified education program with a number of significant risk-reduction measures in place.
The reality we face is that the closure of schools comes with significant consequences for the operation of society, and may not reduce risk. If we make the decision to close schools, it will most likely have to be for entire school terms, semesters or the rest of the academic year. Having our schools closed for months on end will have huge implications for working parents and children's long-term education.
The Education Directorate continues to work closely with ACT Health and plans have been developed for ACT schools to respond to the potential spread of COVID-19 in school communities.
This will be consistent with the approach across Australia. If a student or staff member is infected with the virus it will result in a short closure of the impacted school while ACT Health investigates the incident, undertakes contact tracing and implements appropriate treatment.
The situation in schools will continue to be monitored closely and the health advice may change in the future.
During this difficult time, it's important that we treat people, particularly our healthcare workforce, with kindness and respect.
The best thing we can do now is be patient, be kind and understand that our nurses, doctors and healthcare professionals are working under a lot of pressure, doing what they can to help our community.
At this stage, based on the health advice, you only need to be tested for COVID-19 if you fit certain criteria. There have been over 1100 people tested for COVID-19 and only two confirmed cases. As we enter the colder months there are a number of viruses that enter our community, so there is a need to prioritise testing of people who fit the criteria.
Our health services staff are doing their best and working around the clock to support Canberrans. There is no place in our community to treat nurses and other health services staff like this.
The national response to this public health emergency is not an easy process. There are often no risk-free responses, and there are many competing priorities to balance.
Each decision we will make in the coming months will be difficult, and it will have consequences for the way of life we have come to expect. And this will last for many months.
If, as a nation, we are successful in slowing the spread of the virus, this means we will be living under a public health emergency for a longer period of time.
I know this is difficult to hear, but we do need to think very practically about the implications of this virus on our community in the long term.
Ensuring we effectively respond to the risk posed by a rapid spread of COVID-19 is the ACT government's top priority. It will require a whole-of-government effort, and we will place every resource we have into supporting this co-ordination as it stretches into the rest of the year.
As the weeks and months ahead may see even more restrictions put on social movements, please look out for each other. Set up group chats with friends and family, and share TV and movie recommendations. Call your friends and talk on the phone. And above all else, please remember to thoroughly and regularly wash your hands.
- Andrew Barr is Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the ACT Health website or the federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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