After 263 days of stay-at-home orders, Melbourne has exited what could become the last citywide lockdown of the pandemic.
Vaccination rates are soaring and state governments have signed up to a national reopening plan to gradually give back our freedoms.
State premiers in Victoria and New South Wales have looked past record case numbers and are now reopening pubs and restaurants and shops.
A new COVID normal beckons.
The restrictions our governments put in place sheltered Australia from much of the devastation seen across the rest of the world.
But they also ushered in heavy policing, separated families, wrecked businesses, and kept us from doing the things that we love.
The past 19 months of on-and-off restrictions have forever changed modern Australia. And so today The New Daily looks back.
On January 25, 2020, the first four people in Australia tested positive to COVID-19.
By March 1, a 78-year-old Perth man became the first person to die after contracting COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Fast forward to March 22, and the newly formed national cabinet announced Australia would enter lockdown “for at least six months”.
“We now need to take action, because we can’t have the confidence as a group of leaders that the social distancing guidelines and rules that we’ve put in place won’t be followed to the level of compliance we require to flatten the curve, slow the spread, and save lives,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at an evening press conference.
“So the premiers and chief ministers, together with myself, have tonight agreed that there is a need to move to more widespread restrictions on these gatherings in indoor spaces.”
At noon the following day, restaurants, cafes, pubs, non-essential retail, gyms, cinemas and places of worship all shut their doors to the public.
Australia also closed its borders to foreigners and introduced mandatory hotel quarantine.
A lack of flights meant thousands of Australians would remain stranded overseas for the next year.
Two months after the nationwide lockdown began, 870,000 Australians had lost their jobs.
By July, unemployment reached a 20-year-high of 7.4 per cent.
Australia ultimately recorded its first recession in 29 years – and the biggest one since 1959 – which demonstrated the magnitude of the upheaval.
To combat this, the federal government introduced the Coronavirus Supplement to support newly unemployed people, as well as people already receiving government payments.
It also rolled out JobKeeper for businesses to keep employees on the books, but the scheme was later slammed after companies such as Harvey Norman claimed millions of dollars despite going on to post record profits.
Apps to the rescue
On April 26, 2020, the COVIDSafe app was released at a cost of almost $2 million to build.
Health authorities have used COVIDSafe to identify 81 close contacts so far, but only 17 of those hadn’t already been found via traditional contact tracing.
“Based on the evidence at hand, that’s cost the taxpayer $537,325 for each of the 17 unique cases it has detected,” opposition government services spokesperson Bill Shorten said more than a year later.
Meanwhile, state governments worked on their own check-in apps that eventually became ubiquitous and helped with contact tracing during later outbreaks.
As Sydney and Melbourne reopen, these apps are becoming essential to live with COVID.
Disaster in Victoria
All states began easing their restrictions in May.
At this point, many thought the country would recover from the pandemic much quicker than expected.
But then a new cluster in Melbourne saw Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews impose local lockdowns across 10 postcodes on June 30.
Days later, the state government sent police to lock down nine public housing towers, a move that the Victorian Ombudsman ultimately said breached the human rights of the 3000 affected residents.
By July 8, the whole of Melbourne entered a lockdown that would last for almost four months.
On August 2, Mr Andrews declared a state of emergency.
New Stage 4 restrictions included mandatory masks outdoors and an evening curfew.
Melbourne emerged from 112 days of lockdown on October 27, which at the time made it the longest continuous lockdown in the world.
A COVID Christmas
In mid-December, a COVID cluster emerged on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
This led to a hard lockdown in those suburbs, as well as a gathering cap of just 10 people for the rest of Sydney over the Christmas and New Year’s period.
With cases climbing, most states closed their borders to NSW.
The restrictions disrupted holiday plans all around the country.
For the city’s iconic New Year’s Eve celebrations, the 9pm family fireworks were scrapped and spectators were discouraged from watching the midnight fireworks in person.
This year – after bickering between the City of Sydney and NSW government – both spectacles are set to go ahead.
On December 27, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government wanted to “underpromise and overdeliver” when it came to the vaccine rollout.
Almost two months later, on February 21, 2021, Mr Morrison was among the first Australians to get vaccinated.
But it was a slow start.
Limited vaccine supplies hampered the initial rollout, while government messaging about the AstraZeneca jab – the only locally-manufactured option – sparked public hesitancy.
It wasn’t until several last-minute supply deals were arranged that larger cities around the country started approaching 70, 80 and even 90 per cent double-dose coverage.
Delta ravages Sydney, then Melbourne
On June 16, 2021, a driver at Sydney airport tested positive for the Delta strain of COVID-19.
From here, cases skyrocketed.
NSW toyed with localised restrictions until a hard lockdown was imposed across Greater Sydney on June 26.
The virus also spread through rural areas, and severely affected largely Aboriginal communities such as Wilcannia.
Although NSW managed to flatten the curve, the state government abandoned its ‘COVID zero’ goal, opting instead to end the lockdown sooner.
From NSW, the Delta strain spread to Victoria, where Melbourne entered its sixth and second-longest lockdown.
Sydney emerged from its third lockdown on October 11 after 106 days.
Melbourne has now emerged from its sixth lockdown after 77 days.
The last stint in Melbourne saw the city reclaim from Buenos Aires, Argentina the title for longest overall time spent in lockdown (263 days).
Meanwhile, other states also have relatively minor restrictions.
Under the federal government’s roadmap to live with COVID-19, Australians can reasonably expect only localised lockdowns from now on, if at all.
With 70 per cent of the country fully vaccinated and politicians keen to keep businesses open, all signs point to a lockdown-free future.