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Lockdowns work, says former AHS head who helped bring Australia's COVID cases under control

The first president of Alberta Health Services says Australia's strict lockdown shows it's possible to reach zero COVID-19 cases. He would know, as one of the authors of the report that guided the country's restrictions.

Stephen Duckett says Victoria is proof leaders don't need to choose between economy and health

Stephen Duckett is health program director for Australia's Grattan Institute. A decade ago, he was in charge of Alberta Health Services. (CBC via Google Meet)

The first president of Alberta Health Services says Australia's strict lockdown shows it's possible to reach zero COVID-19 cases.

He would know, as one of the authors of the report that guided the country's restrictions.

"We eliminated the virus. The feeling of relief and celebration, how proud we were that we'd done it, after 110 days of lockdown, was immense … and we're going back to normal. Since last night, I can have 30 people, I think, in my house, if I want to," Stephen Duckett said, speaking to CBC News from Melbourne.

"The evidence is that there's no conflict between what's right for the economy, what's right for people's health … people in hospital don't spend money."

The health economist was hired as AHS's first president and CEO in 2009 — but shortly after his appointment, the province cut the newly created agency's budget by $1 billion. He left in 2010. 

The chairman of the AHS board at the time said Duckett's ability to be an effective CEO was "compromised" after a PR controversy involving him eating a cookie (yes, seriously), while NDP and Liberal politicians said Duckett was made a scapegoat for the PC government's health-care failings.

Now, Duckett is health program director for the Australian Grattan Institute, a non-profit think tank, and one of the co-authors of the institute's Go For Zero report — a policy proposal with the goal of driving Australia's active COVID-19 cases to zero. 

  • WATCH | Stephen Duckett on how Australia got COVID-19 under control and the lessons it holds for Alberta

Stephen Duckett on how Australia got COVID-19 under control

CBC News Calgary

7 months ago
4:14
Stephen Duckett, health program director for the Grattan Institute, talks about how Australia got COVID-19 under control with a strict lockdown — and the lessons it could hold for Alberta. 4:14

The proposal, which called for a strict lockdown — "done once and done well" — was one of the road maps for the Australian state of Victoria's response, and it's worked. The state, which includes the city of Melbourne and has a 6.4 million population, hasn't seen a single new COVID case since the end of October, after seeing daily cases in the 700s over the summer. 

In Australian news, there are celebratory headlines like "The Economy Tests Positive For Recovery."

Duckett said one important piece of Victoria's response was that the premier addressed the media every day to talk about the case numbers — building support for the strict measures, and also support for the state government.

"That built support and that helped us all get through," he said.

The strict lockdown lasted more than three months.

Residents were allowed to leave home only for work, to shop for essential items like food, care/caregiving or daily exercise and recreation. Visitors weren't allowed, except for caregiving or for services like plumbing. Residents also couldn't travel more than five kilometres from home and were required to wear face masks outside their homes.

It also involved fast contact tracing, mandatory masks and strict quarantines for those entering the country — a measure that is easier for Australia, as an island, to enact. 

It's a stark contrast with Alberta. 

Premier Jason Kenney said in late November, as he resisted calls from hundreds of doctors to introduce a lockdown, that the province isn't "involved in a chase after zero." Instead, he said, the goal is to slow the spread of coronavirus enough to keep the health-care system functioning.

Alberta has the most active COVID-19 cases in Canada, and the speed in which it's adding new cases has increased rapidly over the past few months. The province is rushing to add contact tracing capacity, as currently the majority of transmissions come from an unknown source.

'The evidence is pretty clear'

Duckett said that at the start of the pandemic, many Australians also felt like zero was an impossible goal.

"It's an outdated view, of course, because we now know the evidence is pretty clear that the best public health outcome is also the best economic outcome. And if you think about it from the point of view of business, if you don't aim for zero, there's always a risk that even if you get the pandemic under control … you always have the risk that there'll be another blow up, there'll be another, a third wave or a fourth or fifth wave," he said.

"If you're in those circumstances, businesses find it very hard to plan. And, there's this huge uncertainty in the public and they don't spend their money. And so the economy collapses, people restrict their movement."

Stephen Duckett was Alberta Health Services' first president and CEO from March 2009 to November 2010.

Duckett said Australia isn't the only example — he pointed to the difference between Denmark and Sweden. Denmark had a stricter lockdown, and Sweden is seeing more deaths without the expected economic benefits. 

A spokesperson for the premier referred to Kenney's previous comments on the topic, and described the state of Victoria's measures as "truly extreme" and "illiberal."

In late November, Kenney said that a lockdown could cause "profound damage" and said he had implemented the minimum restrictions to safeguard the health-care system while avoiding damage to the economy. 

"To say it's not possible is a lie, in effect. I mean, here we are in Australia, we have achieved it," Duckett said.

Alberta's current measures 'are not sufficient'

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said Monday the province is trying to balance between the harms of COVID-19 and the harms of restrictions — but the harms of COVID-19 are starting to tip that balance.

"We are working to put together that package of recommendations that will help us to bend that curve downwards. We have not been working toward zero cases," Hinshaw said.

"There are pros and cons of different approaches.… I think that the current measures that we have in place are not likely to be sufficient to bring down our numbers."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Rieger

Reporter

Sarah Rieger joined CBC Calgary as an online journalist in 2017. You can reach her by email at sarah.rieger@cbc.ca.

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