Melburnians have been in lockdown for almost 11 weeks and the pressure is growing on Premier Daniel Andrews to relax restrictions despite the state not reaching its target for a reduction in coronavirus cases.
Hopes had been raised for a faster end to lockdown when Melbourne managed to get its 14-day average down quicker than expected, allowing Mr Andrews to announce a slight easing of restrictions on September 27.
It was hoped the city could move to step three of its road map by mid-October instead of October 26, as originally forecast.
However, this week Mr Andrews dashed the hopes of many, ruling out proceeding with planned steps on Sunday.
Melbourne needed to have its rolling 14-day average below five in order to open up but as of Wednesday it was still at 9.6.
Some are now questioning whether Melbourne will ever be able to get its coronavirus numbers down so low.
Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton told reporters on Sunday “we can’t discount that it might be extraordinarily difficult to drive down to zero”.
“No one’s been to this point with a second wave anywhere in the world. We are treading new ground.”
But economist and modeller Professor Quentin Grafton of Australian National University says modelling shows Melbourne will be able to get its cases down further.
His modelling used data up until September 21 and predicted that Victoria would get to five daily cases on a 14-day average on October 24, close to the state’s original predicted date of October 26.
“I think the result is as expected,” Prof Grafton told news.com.au.
“I think the reason people were suggesting there could be a better result or outcome was perhaps due to the expectation of a substantial improvement in surveillance and contact tracing.
“But this substantial improvement doesn’t appear to have occurred, according to the data.”
Prof Grafton said the rate of decline had remained ready and he expected numbers to keep going down, although this depended on whether other restrictions were eased.
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Premier Andrews is expected to reveal changes on Sunday, although he has already ruled out proceeding with the second stage of reopening.
“Everything people have given has to count for something. And it will count for a lot more if we see this thing through for a few more weeks and then take safe steps when they’re safe to be taken and not taken now because we all let our frustration get the better of us,” Mr Andrews said.
In bad news for some, Prof Grafton believes removing the 5km rule would be a mistake.
“I wouldn’t consider this a minor change and it could potentially be a problem because as we’re seeing in Shepparton right now, there is the ability for someone who is asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic to spread the virus.”
It was revealed this week that a cluster of cases in Shepparton was linked to a Melbourne man who initially didn’t tell authorities he had visited the area. The man was also linked to cases in Kilmore.
“I would think the 5km rule is a good rule to keep in place until the target is reached,” Prof Grafton said.
“Minor changes and flexibility may be required but no major changes.”
However, the extended lockdown is testing the most supportive of Victorians and Mr Andrews has said “everything is on the table” when it comes to easing restrictions, including the 5km rule.
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Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has urged the Premier to allow the state to open up, pointing out that NSW was now recording higher case numbers than Victoria but had not gone into lockdown.
“We know how successful NSW has been in suppressing the virus and allowing businesses to get back and open and get people back to work,” Mr Frydenberg said this week.
Despite the critics, Prof Grafton said Victoria’s lockdown had been very successful.
“We know the combination of measures have in fact worked despite what people are saying,” he said.
“When you are getting over 700 cases a day in early August, down to less than 10 on a 14-day average, that is highly successful.
“I understand there are big costs for people but it has been a highly successful strategy.”
Prof Grafton said the next big question was what was going to happen after the relaxation of restrictions.
“We are reaching a critical point, so do we have the surveillance and contact tracing in place?
“If we don’t have a good system in play then we are in big trouble in my view.”
Unfortunately he said data hadn’t shown a substantial improvement in surveillance or contact tracing since September 21.
“The data is not telling us there’s been an improvement but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been,” Prof Grafton said.
He said at this stage the number one priority for Victoria should be making sure the state’s surveillance, testing and contact tracing were working well.
“As soon as people start seeing more people, there is the opportunity for the virus to spread much more,” he said.
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