Even with COVID-19 spread near zero, chief scientist says Australia’s systems are ready

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel is preparing a report for National Cabinet into the systems for supporting contact tracing and outbreak management across all states and territories.

The report is due in the coming weeks, and while Finkel said his team are yet to decide on its exact format, he said the focus would be on identifying the best practices that the various jurisdictions have.

“Overall, I’m impressed with the preparation and the quality and the continuous improvement that all the states and territories are applying to managing contact tracing and outbreak management, they’re all taking it very, very seriously — even the states that have no cases,” Finkel told Senate Estimates on Wednesday night.

“It’s really encouraging to see that even in those circumstances of no community transmission for months, they’re still training staff for a surged need should it happen, they’re improving the digitalisation of their systems to support them should outbreaks occur.”

While Finkel said he has not had the opportunity to review any of the systems in place in comparable countries, such as in Europe or the United States, he said in terms of their COVID-19 case numbers, “it’s hard to have confidence in those systems”.

“Just looking in an absolute sense at what I’m seeing in the states and territories in Australia, I’m actually pleased, proud, and rather confident in our ability to cope with managing the transmission down to an extremely low level, including zero,” he said.

Finkel said he was impressed at the lack of complacency shown even in states and territories where there have been minimal cases for months.

“In fact, I’m pleasantly surprised to see how conscientiously they’re thinking about how things could go awry and optimise their system — and even doing desktop simulations of what the demand would be and where their resources would go should there be a surge in outbreaks … knock on wood, none of us want to test the systems,” he continued.

See also: How NSW Health used tech to respond to COVID-19

With Victorians this week moving out of their second phase of lockdowns, Premier Daniel Andrews said the system in place in his state was “the best in the country”, while also saying the system it was moving to would be emulated by others.

“It’s certainly not incorrect,” Finkel said in response to Andrews’ claims. “We need a few more weeks of testing the system, because it’s all very new, but by design and implementation, it’s very impressive.”

Finkel has been working with the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) “on the periphery”, providing “advice, encouragement, and experience” on its new system.

Hesitant to provide any information that would be included in his National Cabinet report, Finkel said he has seen enormous progress in what the state has achieved.

“The improvements have been manifest across all of the system — it’s the training of the workforce that is doing the work, the processes they’re using, very much a transition from paper-based forms for sample collection and transmission of results to a fully digital process, and just efficiencies in every aspect of the system,” he added.

“Really, three months ago I’m not sure that you would have seen any figures about how quickly they could go from beginning to end, which is sample collection through to notifying close contacts that they have to isolate … 48-hours … I’m very comfortable with the performance of Victoria against that target.”

During a hearing held in early August by the COVID-19 Select Committee, Secretary of the Department of Health Dr Brendan Murphy said that health services in Victoria were feeling “so pressured” that they decided not to use the federal government’s COVIDSafe app.

It was later confirmed that DHHS had told the Department of Health on July 16 it had paused using COVIDSafe app data, citing concerns that using the app’s data would contradict its requirements with privacy laws. On August 1, it recommenced using the COVIDSafe app data.

Over the last 24 hours, there have been 19 new cases of COVID-19 in Australia. Of the country’s total 27,554 confirmed cases, 20,342 have been from Victoria.

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