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SA officials overruled health advice on easing social distancing restrictions

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UPDATED: The committee in charge of South Australia’s COVID-19 response overruled advice provided by the state’s chief public health officer when it decided to ease social distancing rules on the number of people allowed in public spaces.

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Minutes provided to a parliamentary committee this morning show chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier urged the state’s leaders to keep a one person per four square-metre rule in public spaces just one week before the State Government announced a relaxing of the restriction to one person per two square-metres.  

According to the minutes of the Government’s COVID-19 transition committee meeting on June 19 – read at a parliamentary committee hearing this morning – Spurrier “noted that the scientific evidence on the distance of droplet spread did not support a density of one person per two square-metres as it does not allow people to effectively maintain 1.5 metres from each other”.

But at the next meeting on June 23, the committee overruled Spurrier’s advice, deciding to ease the social distancing restriction to one person per two-square metres.

Asked why Spurrier’s advice was overridden, state emergency coordinator and SA Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said “multiple perspectives” were considered, including the economic benefit of easing restrictions to allow businesses to “trade more effectively”.  

“There was a discussion and it was made clear by the chief public health officer that she would like it minuted about the scientific basis for the one person per four square-metre rules and the benefits of that,” he said. 

“But taking into account the current understanding of the existence of COVID-19 in the South Australian community, the restrictions that we had in place for cross-border travel and the economic impact of retaining those distancing requirements led to an agreement within the transition committee that we should move to a one person per two square-metres to free up businesses to be able to trade more effectively.

“It’s more about balance rather than one outweighing the other.”  

Stevens said the rate of COVID-19 in June in South Australia was “deemed to be zero, or so close to zero that it was not discernable within the community”, which gave the committee “some level of comfort” that it could give greater weight to economic considerations.

According to the minutes of the June 19 meeting, the committee noted concerns that a COVID-19 resurgence in Victoria was likely, and subsequently decided to increase border controls with the eastern state.

SA Health chief executive Chris McGowan said keeping the social distancing requirement of one person per four square-metres had “massive” economic and social implications.

“The community would stop complying and the reason we’ve been so successful now is largely because of the compliance of the community,” he said.

“There is a trade-off that you need to have about restrictions like two versus four square-metres.

“If you hold on to four square-metres too long you lose the community support for it, so that’s part of the decision.”  

Spurrier this afternoon said her advice was based on discussions she had with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

“Public health considerations are one part of it but we know there has been a large impact on South Australia’s economy but also our ability socially to be able to interact with each other,” she said.

“It was just one piece of the advice (and) the transition committee provides that advice to the state commander who’s the Police Commissioner and then he provides the advice to the Premier.

“That was basically a good system working well.”

Department for Premier and Cabinet chief executive Jim McDowell said the decision to lift the social distancing restriction was the only time he could recall the committee overruling Spurrier’s advice.

He said Premier Steven Marshall did not influence the transition committee’s decision.

Marshall told reporters this afternoon that the Government considered “a number of factors” when it decided to ease restrictions.

“It is a really tough decision that the transition committee make,” he said.

“I’ve basically got two groups of people: one group that says lock everything down – don’t let anyone in – and then you’ve got another group of people that are often saying my business is having to close or I’ve lost my job.

“We have the unenviable position around that transition committee table to make decisions that are in the best interest of the overall state.”

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