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Life after lockdown: Policy for the next phase of COVID-19

7 May 2020
Guiding the government as it eases COVID-19 restrictions
Ahead of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's coronavirus announcement tomorrow, academic experts offer advice on a post-virus policy framework.

How should we transition out of lockdown? The Sydney Policy Lab put this question to a group of internationally respected experts in public health, epidemiology, economics, mathematics, political philosophy and ethics. The Lab distilled their thoughts into four key principles:

1. Acknowledge that the virus is still with us

Policymaking should begin from the assumption that global eradication of the virus is essentially impossible: in the absence of a vaccine or a series of transformative treatment options, COVID-19 will remain a profound challenge for months or years ahead. Given this, policy makers need also to acknowledge that restrictions on economic functioning and everyday social life are likely to continue to constrain both growth and wellbeing long into the future. They should welcome public debate about the trade-offs that come with each policy intervention.

2. Set clear, national aims

In the absence of certainty about the future of the virus itself, governments must be transparent about the criteria they use to measure ‘success’. At present, the Federal government has been reluctant to set out priorities beyond a general dedication to protecting “lives and livelihoods” as best they can. This reluctance generates public debates that appear impossible to resolve, such as the current debate between the federal government and the state government in Victoria about the opening of schools.

3. Compare different time horizons

It is important that governments and other public authorities set clear time horizons. In the immediate crisis, these time horizons are understandably very short. Yet to secure rational policymaking, this intense focus on the very near term will have to soon give way to longer time horizons. This is particularly crucial given that research has demonstrated a serious ‘scarring’ effect that can transform apparently short-term economic crises – such as a spur (? Spike?) in youth unemployment or an interruption of education and training – into deeply detrimental long-term consequences.   

4. Cultivate openness, experimentation and public dialogue

Whichever precise aims are set and time horizons established, uncertainty remains. Dealing with this level of uncertainty will pose a serious challenge to decisionmakers. The Lab believes the key to success in such an environment is for them to emulate aspects of the scientific method: move slowly and cautiously and reflect on the effects of each decision.

Experts involved in the discussion that led to the development of the criteria include internationally respected experts in infectious diseases, Professor Lyn Gilbert, Professor Ben Marais, and Professor Emma McBryde at James Cook University, joined by the Sydney Policy Lab Director, Professor Marc Stears, economist Dr Gareth Bryant, and health ethics expert, Professor Angus Dawson. These experts are available to continue this discussion. Please contact policy.lab@sydney.edu.au for more information.

Hero image credit: Wes Hicks on Unsplash.

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