Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire are more than halfway through their six-week coronavirus lockdown, but some medical experts are warning Victorians must prepare for the dismaying prospect of the lockdown’s extension.
Victoria recorded a further 723 new cases of COVID-19 and 13 deaths on Thursday, Australia’s highest daily totals since the pandemic started.
Modelling from previous shutdowns suggests the curve should be flattening, especially after the introduction of mandatory masks more than a week ago.
But after Thursday’s case numbers, experts have warned Victorians to ready themselves for the likelihood of a longer lockdown.
“Stage three is not ending in three weeks. I can say that with 98 per cent probability,” University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely said.
The Australian Medical Association also said Melbourne’s restrictions would be needed for longer.
“It’s really unlikely that we’re going to be able to see any lifting of restrictions within the next three weeks,” AMA president Tony Bartone said.
Professor Blakely said Victoria was facing “very challenging times”.
“Seven-hundred-and-twenty-three is quite high and I was, frankly, quite floored by it,” he said.
Calls for clothing, shoe stores to close
Professor Blakely, who has repeatedly called for an “elimination strategy” for the virus, said Victorian authorities needed to redefine what constituted “essential” workers and industries.
He said the movement and mingling of people needed to be further curtailed.
“If you’ve got ‘essential’ industries open that aren’t really that essential, it’s quite likely that in two weeks time that may be where the virus is propagating,” he said.
“Going hard can pay dividends down the track because you can open up sooner.
“I would recommend at this point in time that industries that aren’t really essential, footwear stores, that type of thing, are closed so we’re moving to a tighter definition of what is an essential worker or essential workplace,” he said.
“That would see the department stores that sell shoes, clothes, construction sites closed, it would only allow industries open that are essential to us.
“That’s food, healthcare, pharmacists and the aged-care facilities.”
However, he said federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, in a speech to the National Press Club last week, made it clear a move to stage four restrictions was off the table, “making it very challenging for us”.
“It means somehow we’ve got to get this virus down and head towards elimination, which is the national goal, without going to stage four,” Professor Blakey said.
“We’ve got to use really clever stage three.
“We’re in this awkward no-man’s or no-woman’s land at the moment whereby we can’t use stage four to go for elimination, even though that’s the national goal.
“We’ve got to do this smart and hard stage three.”
Move to ‘the next level’ now, AMA urges
The AMA also wants tougher measures to restrict people’s movement and a critical examination of all industries.
“Pharmacies, supermarkets, medical facilities, they clearly remain essential and it’s extremely important they remain open,” Dr Bartone said.
“After that we really need to produce a very strong, clear reason why we should be having any activity in that sector.
“We need to move to the next level.
“Going harder, earlier will certainly, I believe, result in less overall pain in the long run.
“This sees a really significant curtailing to the amount of movement, reducing the amount of mixing in the community and really we need to look at the definition of what is an essential industry.”
Australia’s deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth said it was important to find ways to stop people who were infected or waiting for test results from going to work.
“This doesn’t go away if we all go to work when we’ve got COVID-19,” Dr Coatsworth told Radio National Drive.
“Any hardship that we’re feeling at the moment is going to be magnified manifold if we don’t get this under control, and that’s where we can all play a part.”
Meanwhile, Professor Blakely said he would expect the impact of mandatory mask wearing to “kick in”.
“I don’t want to be too despondent about it – nevertheless we have ongoing high numbers by Australian standards,” Professor Blakely said.
He said his “most optimistic” guess would be a scenario where Victoria could get to a state of zero community transmission in six weeks, but only with “six weeks of incredibly hard lockdown” … but he also said that it could go on for up to 20 weeks.
“It is now going to be a long haul,” he said.