Australia is at permanent risk of a second wave of COVID-19 cases, the nation’s chief medical officer has warned.
Brendan Murphy has told a Senate inquiry into the federal government’s COVID-19 response that authorities are keeping a close eye on Singapore, which initially tracked well but is now dealing with a surge in cases.
“They had a very similar approach to us but they’ve now had a second wave in their migrant worker population,” he said on April 23.
“We have to be very, very aware that whilst we’ve only had seven cases over the last 24 hours, we’re in a wonderful position, but there is a permanent risk of further waves.
“This is a highly infectious virus and it can take off fairly quickly.”
Murphy said the most effective decisions to curb the spread of the virus were shutting the nation’s borders and ensuring returning Australians were quarantined in hotels.
He says re-opening the borders will “absolutely” be the last measure to be eased, with no changes for at least three to four months.
“The international situation at the moment is such that any relaxation of border measures would be very risky,” he said.
“It’s very hard to put a time frame on anything at the moment.”
Murphy says he was first made aware of the virus on January 1, when China gave an assurance it was animal to human transmission.
He says that changed about three weeks later.
“There was clear evidence coming from China that there was significant human to human transmission which was a game changer,” he told the hearing.
“Once you’ve got human to human transmission you’ve got a significant risk.”
Murphy says he first briefed Health Minister Greg Hunt around January 19 and the national security committee of cabinet a few days later.
Acting Department of Health secretary Caroline Edwards said the government was working with Apple and Google on a tracing app to help with virus case tracking.
Privacy issues are being dealt with before the app is launched, she added.
From next week the inquiry will hold hearings twice a week, bringing back senior bureaucrats such as Murphy for updates.
Treasury boss Steven Kennedy will appear on Tuesday.
The Senate committee is chaired by Labor’s Katy Gallagher and government senator James Paterson is deputy.
Senator Gallagher says Labor wants details on issues that are front of mind for Australians, pointing out that the government’s response has so far cost more than $3 billion.
Senator Paterson has said the inquiry would look at health measures put in place to slow the spread, the economic cost of the government’s plan and the path out of the health crisis.
By Rebecca Gredley