Some complain that the horse has already bolted too far for that balance to work any more. For now, the government is sticking to an incremental ratcheting up of measures. There is more in the locker, says the Prime Minister, and much will depend on the infection rate from here on. The government has rejected the idea of forcibly confining people to their homes, as France and Italy have done against the infection clusters rippling across Europe. That’s because any measures will have to stay in place for six months if the virus is to be seen off for good, and more drastic lockdowns may simply not be sustainable. As Mr Morrison says, this is not something that can be fixed by just shuttering the country for a fortnight. We have only statistical modelling and history to help in a situation where the timing of new social controls in line with rising infection is important. Banning gatherings are worthwhile pre-emptive strikes against higher rates of disease later. And while lockdowns at home sound effective, there is also a risk that the public will tire of long restrictions just when their co-operation is really needed.
Both the federal and state governments agree that schools must stay open, despite pressure from parents and the closing of some non-government schools. They are right to be objective about it. Children are mercifully the least affected by COVID-19 and sending them home could pull health worker parents away from the critical front lines. The science of containing the virus through crowd control remains uncertain. But it would take compelling reasons to over-rule the virus experts on this.
Other nations have been getting through by management rather than extreme quarantine, notably South Korea and Singapore, which have been models of finding, tracking and halting infection clusters using technology. That is also a reflection that while plagues are historically negative and shocking events, they accelerate technological change – in Singapore’s case learning deeply from the earlier SARS pandemic. Australians will now labour under months of restrictions so alien to them, and some will die, but we may learn something to head off the next time.