Politicians and business leaders have slammed Victoria’s lockdown extension and claimed it will be a “death sentence” for retail, but leading public health experts say Daniel Andrews’ roadmap to a ‘COVID-normal’ society is “very sensible”.
The Victorian Premier confirmed the obvious on Sunday, announcing Victoria would remain locked down for several more weeks, potentially not easing many restrictions until late November.
Under a five-step roadmap, metro Melbourne will remain in Stage 4 lockdown until the end of September at least, before gradually rolling back rules once certain case number thresholds are low enough.
“We cannot open up at this time,” Mr Andrews said.
Infectious diseases experts speak up
Professor Brendan Crabb, director and CEO of the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, was pleased the Victorian government’s roadmap was “evidence-based, rather than politically driven”.
“There was enormous pressure to act a bit more politically on the community sentiment – we’re all desperate for a more ‘normal’ life,” he told The New Daily.
“It was a very sensible, evidence-based and ultimately quite strong response, dictated by the numbers and the evidence much more than by a strict date.”
When asked about the effect restrictions would have on businesses, Professor Crabb said the roadmap would ultimately boost economic strength.
“If we have a third wave, they’re smashed,” he said of business owners.
This idea that it’s health versus economy is a faux argument: The two are linked.’’
But Dr Alex Polyakov, a senior lecturer in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Melbourne, was concerned the state government’s target of less than five cases on average over a two-week period “may not be achievable”.
“In the past, the conversation was always about flattening the curve and reducing transmission,” he said.
“Now we seem to have moved to complete elimination, which is what this pathway is designed to do.”
Acknowledging the roadmap was “reasonable”, he said the government needed to demonstrate its capacity to quickly test and contact trace, and to communicate this new goal to Victorians.
“If the government is going to expect the public to follow these rules, they need to make contact tracing data available and transparent,” Dr Polyakov said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt released a joint statement, calling the announcement “hard and crushing news”.
The federal trio said the announcement was a state government issue, and that national officials would examine its implications, but also slid in a veiled swipe at Mr Andrews.
They said the extension was “a further reminder of the impact and costs that result from not being able to contain outbreaks”, and praised the NSW Liberal government’s coronavirus strategy.
“Of critical importance is that Victoria’s contact tracing is strengthened to the highest possible levels,” the ministers said.
“In NSW, this has enabled the Berejiklian government to respond to multiple outbreaks while permitting businesses and people to carry out their daily lives in a COVID-safe way.
“This is the way forward. Restrictions are not substitutes for strengthening health systems to cope with the virus.”
statement on Victorian lockdown extension from Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt – says it's a matter for the state, but a veiled swipe by praising NSW and saying VIC should follow their example
"Restrictions are not substitutes for strengthening health systems" pic.twitter.com/nLbbnsxH1s
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) September 6, 2020
Labor’s federal deputy leader Richard Marles – representing the Geelong-based seat of Corio – said the extension was “sensible”.
“None of us want to be under these restrictions a day longer than we need to. But we must be guided by the health advice,” Mr Marles told The New Daily.
“If Victorians continue to do an excellent job following the rules, the numbers will continue to drop and we can continue along this sensible path to getting back to relative normality.”
Predictably, the Victorian state opposition was unhappy with the changes.
Before Mr Andrews’ press conference finished, state Liberal leader Michael O’Brien tweeted the Premier had “betrayed Victorians”.
Mr O’Brien claimed the lockdown extension was “denying us hope, ripping the heart out of small business + taking a wrecking ball to our economy”.
In a later press conference, he questioned why the roadmap kept areas of regional Victoria in Stage 3 lockdowns, despite many parts of the state not having had a single COVID case.
He also again hammered Mr Andrews on hotel quarantine failings that saw the virus escape into the community, as well as claiming Victoria had a “second-rate” contact tracing system.
Business leaders split
Industry and business identities reacted with mixed feelings.
“With the plan released today, we can see a path out if we all do the right thing,” NAB CEO Ross McEwan said.
“We need to get Victoria and, in particular, Melbourne open for business as quickly as possible, but we need to do it safely and cautiously.”
CEO of the Australian Retailers Association, Paul Zahra, had harsher words – claiming the ongoing restrictions would be a “death sentence” for some businesses.
“Melbourne retailers will have been subject to lockdown for 13 weeks at that point,” Mr Zahra said in a statement.
“Without further financial support, this will certainly permanently wipe out a large number of small businesses and see the closure of many Victorian stores by national retailers.”
That followed comments from the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, who demanded businesses with appropriate COVID safety plans to be allowed to open.
“Regions that had no cases, why aren’t they allowed to open? Bunnings, Target, Kmart, Big W, Officeworks … Why can’t these things start to open?” she said on the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday morning, before the roadmap was announced.
Innes Willox, chief executive of the AI Group, claimed it would have “catastrophic economic, health and social damage”.