The festive season is looming in the not-too-distant future, and it promises to be a Christmas unlike any Australia has celebrated before.
In most states, it’s likely to be small due to the coronavirus pandemic, while five million Melburnians – who have been in a form of lockdown for nearly two months – are facing the prospect of no guests at all.
The clock is ticking, and there are just 120 days to go.
But there is hope.
Dr Stephen Duckett, The Grattan Institute’s health program director, said a regular Christmas with friends and family was “absolutely” within reach for Melburnians.
But it comes with a catch – extending the city’s Stage 4 lockdown for at least another two weeks.
After completing the extension, the government should reassess our progress every fortnight, he said, tightening or loosening restrictions accordingly until we wipe out the virus completely.
“We should be going for elimination,” Dr Duckett told The New Daily.
“The longer (the virus) circulates the higher chance of a larger outbreak, which means going back into lockdown.”
Associate Professor Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland, agreed that Melbourne should go hard and eliminate the virus rather than simply suppressing it.
“I think we’ve proven we can’t just live with this virus very easily – we’d be better off trying to choke it,” he told The New Daily.
“Most of Australia is essentially in an elimination position. Why would you not try and get rid of it, and get life back to normal?”
So far, the federal government has chosen to stick to its goal of “aggressive suppression”, where restrictions and border closures will be introduced intermittently to shut down outbreaks.
“True elimination is really only a realistic strategy when you have a vaccine,” Dr Nick Coatsworth, Australia’s federal deputy chief medical officer, wrote in an opinion piece in July.
But Dr Duckett, a health economist and former health bureaucrat, said elimination was still worth pursuing to keep potential outbreaks to a minimum.
He acknowledged Melbourne’s Stage 4 lockdown had been devastating for many businesses, but he said the long-term economic damage would be even worse if we kept lifting and reintroducing lockdowns under a suppression strategy.
“We’ll be living a yo-yo life. Businesses will be living a yo-yo life,” he said.
“We won’t be able to plan adequately for the future, or plan for anything.”
Instead, it was better to go for gold and eliminate the virus as best we can like New Zealand.
Economic recovery aside, Dr Duckett said a significant proportion of older and immunocompromised Australians – about 40 per cent of the population – would be forced to live “very strange lives” if COVID-19 was still circulating.
We’d be saying to them: ‘Don’t expect to work in the healthcare system ever again, or aged care, and don’t expect to go to a party ever again’,’’ he said.
To have a proper Christmas this year, we must achieve zero active cases in Victoria, he said.
Whether we do this by extending Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne indefinitely or easing to Stage 3 restrictions depends how quickly our case numbers drop.
The question is: How much longer can Melburnians wait?