The exit strategy: how countries around the world are preparing for life after Covid-19 | World news


Australia has a road out of its coronavirus lockdown, long and winding though it may be.

Having warned repeatedly that this pandemic response was taking Australia into “uncharted territory”, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has leaned again on a navigational metaphor for our subsequent recovery.

“Having worked through the road in,” Morrison told reporters this week, the country’s attention must turn now to “that road to recovery on the other side”.

It’s going to be step by step, there is going to be some trial and error, this is completely uncharted territory. No country in the world has worked this out yet … we will all work together and we will all find a way through.”

There are timelines: in four weeks, the national cabinet of the state and federal governments will reevaluate Australia’s lockdown measures to see if any can be relaxed or lifted; in six months, the government hopes that the extraordinary financial architecture inserted to prop up the country’s economy can start to be wound back. But social distancing may last for years, until a vaccine is found or widespread community immunity is achieved.

Critically, however, Australia’s immediate road map is more definitive on what, rather than when.

Three conditions for easing restrictions

The prime minister, in an expansive press conference, outlined the three key criteria that will guide Australia’s path back from Covid-19.

  • An increased capacity to test and a more extensive “sentinel testing” regime, which means testing rapidly and widely, including people who are asymptomatic, to understand just how widespread the virus is.

  • Contact tracing “lifted to an industrial capability”, in the words of the prime minister, to find and isolate all of the contacts of a known infection. A key part of this will be encouraging Australians to download to their phones a tracing app, currently in production, modelled on Singapore’s TraceTogether App, which uses bluetooth to alert users when they come into contact with a confirmed case.

  • Strengthened “local response capabilities” – essentially the ability to lock down hotspots where outbreaks occur, such as the one in north-west Tasmania this week. This will include multiple layers of government agencies, including, potentially, the military.

For countries that have weathered the Covid-19 storm well so far, the pressure on governments to reopen their societies and economies is intense: from business groups seeing entire industries laid barren; from political commentators reading the economic data and seeing a sea of red; from families anxious to see children back in school; from citizenry desperate to get back to work and reestablish some normality in their lives.

But the risks of relaxing too much, too soon, are very real, and medical experts have warned against rushing to lift restrictions prematurely, potentially sparking a more deadly second wave and undermining the hard-won gains so far.


It’s an invidious choice for governments all over the world, weighing lives against livelihoods. “Every time you relax a restriction, more people will get sick, more people will die,” the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has said.

Australia’s medical response to Covid-19, while not without flaws, such as the Ruby Princess debacle, has been dramatically successful by international standards: just over 6,400 infections resulting in 65 deaths (as of Friday evening).

The Czech Republic, with a similar number of infections (6,433), has had 169 people die. Denmark, with 7,074 infections, has had 321 deaths.

Australia, as it did with the initial Covid-19 outbreak, will again benefit from being able to watch as other parts of the world unfurl from their hibernations first, to see what the realities are and where the risks lay.

New Zealand

New Zealand has been one of the few western nations to pursue a policy of elimination of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The country has been successful in flattening its curve of infections – 1,401 cases and only nine deaths – but the policy has not been without resistance.

A group of six scientists, calling themselves Plan B, have urged the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, to open the country, claiming a strategy of elimination cannot succeed and would cause worse economic and health outcomes than the virus itself.

New Zealand entered one of the world’s strictest lockdowns early, on 23 March, before a single death from the virus in the country. It closed schools, and all shops save for essential services such as supermarkets, pharmacies, service stations, hospitals and banks. Non-essential movement was prohibited, travel between islands and gatherings stopped, and all indoor and outdoor events cancelled indefinitely. Even partners who lived apart were stopped from seeing each other.

On Monday, Ardern’s cabinet will meet to discuss winding back its lockdown measures, from “level four” to “level three”. If there is no spike in infection numbers before Monday, Ardern told New Zealanders, an easing of restrictions will mean “you can expand your bubble a small amount”.

A deserted Wellington street on Friday



A deserted Wellington street on Friday. New Zealand was an early adopter of an extremely restrictive lockdown. Photograph: Dave Lintott/REX/Shutterstock

Life under level three will still be tightly proscribed; contact with other people must still stay “very very limited” Ardern said. But the number of people back at work will roughly double to 1 million under level three, with the exemption on workplaces relaxed from “essential” to “safe”.

Early childhood centres and schools will reopen for students up to year 10 under level three, but attendance would remain voluntary. Funerals, tangi and weddings with up to 10 people would be allowed under the relaxed regime. Electricians and plumbers can go back to work, but must keep their distance from customers. Cafes, restaurants, malls and retail shops must stay closed but food delivery, drive-through services and online shopping will be allowed.

Germany

Much of Europe has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Behind the US, by far the most affected country, with 667,000 cases, the next four countries by absolute infection numbers – Spain, Italy, France, and Germany – are all in Europe.

Despite widespread outbreaks, new infection rates are falling, and many countries are either beginning to reanimate their economies or are in the process of planning to do so.

Germany’s health system, despite more than 100,000 infections across the country, has coped with the current surge, and chancellor Angela Merkel has cautiously welcomed the “fragile intermediate success” brought by social distancing measures that had helped “flatten the curve”.

She cautioned, however, “we have little room to manoeuvre”. Germany currently has a Covid-19 reproduction rate of 0.7 (meaning, on average, one infected person goes on to infect less than one other person). If that reproduction rate rose fractionally to 1.1, Germany’s health system could be overwhelmed by October. At 1.2, it could reach crisis point by July.

The chancellor announced this week that schools across the country would reopen on 4 May, initially for students in their final years of primary or secondary school. Hairdressers will also be allowed to reopen on the same day if they undertake precautions to guarantee hygiene for customers and staff. Shops of up to 800 square metres in size, as well as bookshops, bike stores and car dealerships, will open again from 20 April.

Social distancing measures will remain in force until 3 May and large cultural events, such as concerts and beer festivals, are banned until the end of August. Merkel “urgently recommended” people wear protective masks on public transport and while shopping, but has not made them compulsory.

“We have achieved something that wasn’t guaranteed,” the chancellor said. “Our health system has kept running.”

However, Merkel’s declaration of reopening schools is not so straightforward. Like Australia, Germany has a federalised system of governance. Many of the decisions about relaxing restrictions – including reopening schools – are the domain of the states, which have at times fiercely disagreed on the best way forward and which measures to relax.

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic was one of the first European countries to shut its borders, enforcing one of the most comprehensive lockdowns on the continent. Only the Republic and neighbouring Slovakia have mandated the wearing of face masks in public.

The measures have been broadly successful. The country of 10 million people has recorded 6,433 infections and 169 deaths, and already some restrictions have been eased.

A limited range of shops have been opened, citizens can run and cycle without a mask, and those who have “reasonable grounds” to travel overseas can leave the country (but must quarantine for a fortnight on return).

Now the government has announced a tentative five-step process to reopen society. Less ‘Prague Spring’ than ‘Prague-first-green-shoots-of-recovery’, it is a cautious reopening of certain elements, beginning with farmers’ markets – a staple of Czech life – small repair shops such as locksmiths and car dealerships.

A man wearing a face mask walks through a Prague bus station



A man wearing a face mask walks through a Prague bus station. Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA

A week later – provided the limited reopening does not spark a rush of new infections – small shops will be allowed to open, followed by shops of up to 1,000 sqm (provided they are not in shopping malls), as well as gyms and fitness centres (but with showers and change rooms closed).

Pubs, wine bars, coffee shops, and restaurants will be allowed to reopen on 25 May, but with strict restrictions: they can only have outdoor seating and provide service through a hatch.

The final stage of the process will be 8 June, when everything else, large shops, shopping centres, hotels, and zoos, will be permitted to reopen.

The wearing of masks while outdoors will remain compulsory: no end date has been set.

Elsewhere in Europe

Italy, at one point the most infected country on earth, has reopened bookshops, laundries, stationers, and children’s clothes stores in some regions. Forestry workers and IT manufacturers have been allowed back to work. The country’s full lockdown is set to end on 4 May.

In Spain, which has endured 185,000 infections and nearly 20,000 deaths, some factory and construction workers have been allowed back to work but most shops and services remain closed and office staff are still working from home. Spain’s lockdown is set to end on 27 April but will almost certainly be extended.

Austria has allowed small shops, hardware and gardening shops to reopen, along with public parks (with strict distancing rules and masks). If the virus remains under control – new rates of infection have been dropping – all shops will reopen on 2 May, and restaurants from mid-May.

Denmark reopened daycare centres and primary schools this week. With just over 7,000 infections, Denmark has mapped out a longer-term road to recovery: restaurants and cafes will remain closed and gatherings of more than 10 people banned until 10 May. Larger public gatherings will be prohibited until August.