Melbourne’s stringent Stage 4 lockdown is the only way Victoria will be able to rein in community transmission of the coronavirus, infectious disease experts say.
But it has to be done properly to work.
If not, an “inconceivable” next step looms.
On Monday, metropolitan Melbourne endured its first day of Stage 4 restrictions with residents banned from travelling more than five kilometres from their homes and ordered indoors between the hours of 8pm and 5am.
The tough measures are expected to last for six weeks. But the World Health Organisation’s warning on Tuesday morning that there is “no silver bullet” has again underpinned that all Australians should expect ongoing changes to our way of life, far beyond any lockdown.
“There are concerns that we may not have a vaccine that may work, or its protection could be for just a few months, not more,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“Until we finish the clinical trials, we will not know.”
As his state recorded 429 new coronavirus cases and 13 deaths, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews revealed which businesses will be able to stay open, which ones will close, and which ones must run at a significantly reduced capacity.
Clothing shops and hairdressing salons will be forced to shut, but abattoirs and some construction work will continue operations under strict conditions.
It means about 250,000 people will be out of work by Thursday.
Those still needing to travel for work will have to prove to police they can travel, with the Premier flagging a permit system could be introduced this week.
Mr Andrews is also expected to announce on Tuesday more tough rules and plans to tighten enforcement.
Scores of Australian Defence Force personnel are already helping the state, enforcing stay-at-home orders and vehicle checkpoints, boosting testing efforts and working with paramedics.
Mr Andrews was questioned on Monday about the potential for a Stage 5 lockdown.
“It’s hard to imagine what a Stage 5 might look like,” he said.
“But it would radically change the way people live. Not just rules on when and where you can go shopping, but restrictions on going shopping at all.”
Pressed by reporters, Mr Andrews answered “there is not Stage 5 – it doesn’t work”.
Otherwise, we will have to develop a set of rules that will even further limit people’s movements… I don’t want to get to a situation where we’ve got to take those steps.’’
– Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, said the premier’s announcements included alarming references to Stage 5 in order to demonstrate “the alternative is inconceivable”.
Disaster payments begin
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed a $1500 disaster payment for Victorians who need to self-isolate for two weeks and have exhausted their sick leave.
It may be offered to other states if they also face a “disaster” declaration.
Mr Andrews has repeatedly raised concerns about the number of Victorians still going to work even while sick, with concerns people could not afford to take days off.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions said the new payment – which covers a fortnight and can be applied for multiple times – doesn’t go far enough as it amounts to minimum wage.
“We need a new, temporary, paid leave entitlement so that working people will not lose wages or risk their job to isolate or get tested when they need to,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus said.
More rules for other states as infections rise
Mr Morrison described Victoria’s situation as heartbreaking after the state’s grim day brought the national coronavirus death toll to 221.
“Australia’s future depends on these weeks and months ahead,” he told reporters in Canberra.
Victoria’s high case number has led Tasmania to keep its borders closed until at least the end of the month, backtracking on a decision to allow visitors from South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory from Friday.
South Australia has reported two new coronavirus cases – both in hotel quarantine – as officials move to reimpose some COVID-19 restrictions.
From midnight on Tuesday family gatherings will be reduced from 50 to just 10 people, while trading in pubs and restaurants will be limited to seated patrons only.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has pledged NSW will get tougher with its border restrictions if needed, after a baby coming from Victoria was among the state’s newest cases.
NSW reported 13 new COVID-19 cases on Monday – four of which were returned travellers from overseas or Victoria, and one with no known source.
Another four cases were announced from the weekend – a 52-year-old woman, her son, daughter-in-law and their baby.
The family had recently returned from Melbourne to Wagga Wagga and had been in self-isolation.
13 new cases of #COVID19 have been diagnosed in NSW between 8pm on 1 August and 8pm on 2 August.
— NSW Health (@NSWHealth) August 3, 2020
Stage 4 is the only way forward for Victoria
University of Queensland virologist Professor Ian Mackay told The New Daily that while Stage 4 would be painful it was the “only way to stop the spread of this virus”.
That’s because COVID-19 survives and spreads by jumping from one person to another and infecting as many people as possible.
“The more that we can keep people apart – and that includes lockdowns and limiting movement – the more likely it will work to shut this down quickly in Victoria,” Professor Mackay said.
But he said it was “hard to know” if the Stage 4 rules would be enough to get the virus under control.
“It’s a bit more likely we’ll see a dramatic reduction (in cases) with all these restrictions than if we continued to chip away very slowly,” he said.
“We won’t know how effective it is until about two weeks later.
“The country is watching – the world is watching – to see how this works.”
A key difference between Victoria’s first and second wave is the “scale and the speed of community transmission”, he said.
In Victoria, the virus has been spreading so rapidly through the general population that contact tracers have been unable to accurately pinpoint when a person became infected, and by whom.
On Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said these “mystery” coronavirus cases – of which there are at least 760 in the state – were the main reason behind the Stage 4 lockdown.
Will Stage 4 break the back of the coronavirus?
Dr Alex Polyakov, a senior lecturer in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Melbourne, said he wasn’t convinced the rules would be enough to drive down the state’s infection rate.
“I don’t know if it will be enough because there are a lot of industries that are still allowed to continue to operate,” he said, referring to some “confusing” concessions made for the construction industry.
He said the whole point of a Stage 4 lockdown was to create a “circuit breaker” entailing “six weeks of no activity to drive down the numbers to literally zero”.
“Only essential services should be running, such as hospitals and supermarkets,” said Dr Polyakov, who holds a masters in epidemiology and biostatistics.
“These decisions are extremely difficult for the government – they have to balance the need to control the virus with economic considerations. But I do think there is a chance these restrictions in the current form may not in fact achieve the desired result.”
He acknowledged the unprecedented Stage 4 lockdown would be challenging for Melburnians, but Dr Polyakov said he wanted people to remember the coronavirus pandemic was a “once-in-a-generation event”.
“Our grandparents went through WWII and surely that was much, much worse,” he said.
“Yes it’s annoying, and yes some people can find it confronting, but at the end of the day, it’s not like being in a war zone and this is for the greater good.”