Psychologically, Victorians are ready to come out of lockdown as they brace for 19 October, the date the state might move to reduced restrictions if certain criteria are met.
Restrictions such as the curfew, lifted on 28 September, and the 5km radius, which remains in place, have disproportionately affected those who do not live close to amenities such as parks and beaches, who work shifts, who have disabilities or who live with their children in small apartments without outdoor space.
Inequality has been exacerbated as the jobkeeper and jobseeker payments are wound back. Businesses that have been forced to close, unsure when restrictions will be lifted, cannot give staff certainty about a return to work. Calls to helplines have increased. Comments from Daniel Andrews last Sunday that his children were “disappointed” in Victorians who went to St Kilda beach, and on Thursday that he understood what Victorians were going through “on a personal level”, seem somewhat ill-advised.
With many Victorian suburbs in lockdown since 1 July, the 19th has become a focus for many who are struggling in the face of hardship and uncertainty. People are ready to find a new Covid-normal. Daily case numbers are declining overall, despite the emergence of the Butcher Club and Kilmore clusters.
But whether high-risk workplaces and the department of health will be able to respond quickly to any outbreaks once the state reopens is key. The failures in these areas have been numerous and catastrophic. There were breaches in hotel quarantine. It took the premier and former health minister Jenny Mikakos weeks to acknowledge what doctors and nurses had been telling them; that health workers were being infected in the workplace, not the community. At the start of the second wave, when it was so crucial to get on top of cases, the contact tracing system was slow and clunky. As a result, it has been widely reformed. But will that be enough?
‘It’s about getting ahead of the spread’
Prof Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, says contact tracing has improved, with close contacts of cases now contacted within four hours 80% of the time. Previously, Victoria’s system was centralised, with tracers lacking local knowledge. The state has now created local testing hubs, and updated its IT system for better information sharing.
Asymptomatic testing is also a good idea, Bennett says. After a worker at a cafe in Kilmore was identified as positive on Tuesday, more than 230 people linked to the cafe were ordered into isolation and to undergo testing, whether they had symptoms or not.
Bennett says this should now be considered in other clusters as well.
“This is about getting ahead of the spread so the outbreak is closed down,” she says. “I know the chief health officer raised the challenge of this being allowable under law as a ‘proportionate’ measure, but I think this, given their concerns about the speed of spread in cases with high viral loads, is easier to argue as proportionate than maintaining broader restrictions with very low case numbers.”
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These broader restrictions include the 5km radius, which the premier has repeatedly said works because it “restricts movement”. It is a somewhat disingenuous justification, since many measures, such as ordering Victorians to stay at home at all times, or a longer curfew, would also restrict movement. The real question is whether the measure is proportionate – whether it limited spread of the virus enough to justify the impact on the state’s most vulnerable.
“I think metropolitan Melbourne should be ready to step to the same level as regional Victoria,” Bennett says. Outside the capital people can leave their homes unrestricted, aside from a ban on entering metropolitan Melbourne, and businesses are open with some restrictions in place on customer numbers. Masks are still mandatory.
“The current cases in Kilmore are used to emphasis how important the ‘ring of steel’ is, but in fact we have to be ready to respond within the first chains of transmission in a cluster wherever they are, so with so few outbreaks, and very, very few isolated cases in metropolitan Melbourne, we should be safe to open to the whole-state level,” she says.
“It’s worth remembering that we opened to greater freedoms than step three back in May, when we had the same case numbers as this week, and a large outbreak still being contained, and that worked.
“With local experienced teams, sentinel testing that will help the teams have a head start by identifying incidental community transmission via screening of asymptomatic workers, along with the IT developments, should be more than enough.”
‘By and large, people have been compliant’
On Thursday, Andrews was asked whether Victorians should be ready for 19 October to bring no change in restrictions. He indicated that he was no longer as tied to the requirement of a 14-day rolling average of under five cases, including less than five mystery cases, in order to lift them.
“We’ll look to make as many changes as we safely can,” he said. “Whatever we can give back, whatever we can loosen, then of course we will. Numbers are critically important but the narrative that sits behind those numbers is a really important part of this too.”
In other words, if there are more than five cases but all of those cases can be linked to a known and controlled source, that might be less problematic than less than five cases, but where a source of transmission can’t be identified.
“Chance does play a really large part in this,” he said.
Prof Hassan Vally, a leading epidemiologist at La Trobe University who has also worked within the department of health, says it is important to remember the significant role Victorians have played in controlling the virus by adhering to restrictions. While Andrews has often spoken of his disappointment in individuals “doing the wrong thing”, Vally says “by and large, people in Victoria have been compliant”.
He says Andrews and the government need to be transparent about the evidence behind any measures to keep Victorians on board. It took days of repeated questioning by reporters for Andrews to admit the curfew was more about making policing easier than any public health advice. He rejected claims claims from community legal centres that the policing has disproportionately affected vulnerable groups, despite evidence to the contrary.
“If you are introducing something that is not evidence based, and it’s just one of those difficult judgment calls you have to make in a crisis, you can just say that,” Vally says. “Be really transparent, and people will respect you, because there’s so much uncertainty.”