Should Australia allow mass gatherings? Experts weigh in on lifting restrictions

Jun 12, 2020
Experts provide their views on whether mass gatherings should be allowed yet, or not. Source: Getty

The decision of thousands of Australians to attend Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the weekend caused a divide among politicians and residents alike, with some fearing it could cause a second outbreak of the coronavirus. And now with further mass gatherings planned in coming weeks, including allowing crowds at sporting events, many have begun to question are we doing the right thing?

Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann came under harsh criticism this week after he slammed the actions of Aussies who attended protests, labelling them “irresponsible” for gathering together amid the pandemic and posing an “unacceptable risk” to the community. And just yesterday Prime Minister Scott Morrison hit out at calls for similar protests to go ahead this weekend, claiming it’s the “only real block” to the easing of further social distancing restrictions.

However many people disagree, arguing that now is the time to protest police brutality and express support for the BLM movement en masse. Meanwhile, the Australian Football League has given fans the all clear to attend a match in Adelaide this Saturday – albeit a far smaller attendance of just 2,240 fans. While fans are also expected to be allowed to return to the stands for two matches in NSW.

Understandably it’s caused a lot of confusion throughout Australia, with mixed messages on whether we should be stepping out, or if we should still be social distancing and self-isolating as much as possible. Now, experts have responded to the situation and given their views on whether it’s time to lift Australia’s Covid-19 restrictions.

University of Western Australia Professor Jon Watson is on the bandwagon to ease restrictions, allowing smaller gatherings, like what the AFL is doing. He said it’s “fantastic” that Australia is able to start having these conversations about the return of crowds and community sport and “really shows how well we have done in reducing community transmission”.

While he admitted keeping 1.5 metres apart will be difficult to achieve at larger gatherings, community transmission is now at a very low level, and with excellent facilities and resources for testing, Watson believes opening up sport, travel, hospitality and business is a smart idea – as long as it’s done slowly.

“I support the decision to continue gradually lifting the restrictions,” he said. “We need to continue to observe good hygiene as this occurs and also if anyone feels unwell, they shouldn’t participate and they should be tested. That is a long term cultural shift that should continue into the future. Hopefully, by doing this we can enjoy the wonderful lifestyle and benefits that we have in Australia whilst continuing to minimise the risk of a future outbreak.”

Paul Griffin, Director of Infectious Diseases at Mater Health Services, agreed and said we now have as level of control that permits a relaxation of broader restrictions, provided we maintain hand hygiene, social distancing and stay isolated if unwell.

“My fear is that if the restrictions on borders and sporting events aren’t appropriately relaxed in a consistent and transparent manner, obviously in a controlled way in accordance with advice from the expert groups largely responsible for our success, and particularly if there’s ongoing inconsistency in how this is done, then we risk undermining confidence and disengaging the community who really are ultimately responsible for our success.”

But this view isn’t received well by everyone, with other experts warning mass gatherings will put the community at significant risk of infection and ultimately delay the elimination of the disease in Australia. They hold the same view as Morrison that gatherings of any kind are a potential threat and could mean a longer wait before we return to ‘normal’ life.

“Our modelling shows that the probability to achieve elimination within the next two weeks changes from ‘almost certain’ to ‘not likely at all’ if one doesn’t maintain sufficient social distancing until then,” Professor Eckhard Platen from the University of Technology said. “An infected person would almost certainly infect several individuals in a large crowd and such an incident would significantly delay the elimination of the disease in Australia.”

Meanwhile, Dr Tom Heenan from Monash University hit out at AFL clubs in particular for considering allowing crowds at matches once again, and said this would send the wrong message that coronavirus has been eliminated and that there’s no risk of infection.

“Football is not immune from the need to limit movement and continue social distance practices,” he said. “The introduction of small crowds to AFL games will provide clubs with some welcome revenue, however, it will create unnecessary movement across cities when people are still being asked to work from home and limit travel on public transport.

“Covid-19 is extremely contagious and the consequences of the Black Lives Matter marches are yet to be felt. Perhaps there will be none and Australia avoid multiple spreads. But this is not the time to roll the Covid dice. To introduce crowds – no matter how small – only muddles the message that no herd, not even the AFL and NRL tribes, are immune from this virus.”

It’s obvious the views are split, and people remain divided on when and where they’re allowed to gather together. So, what do you think? Is it time to allow events to go ahead, or are we putting the country at risk of another outbreak?

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Do you think mass gatherings should go ahead? Or would you prefer if restrictions stayed in place?

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