Victorians ignoring social distancing are largely to blame for the state’s spike in COVID-19 cases, resulting in Melbourne’s six-week lockdown, experts say.
A similar spike could easily happen in other states and territories – and one epidemiologist is predicting New South Wales will be next.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced millions of people across metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire will re-enter Stage 3 lockdown restrictions for six weeks from midnight Wednesday.
We have to take this as seriously as we take bushfire. This is binary. It is life and death.’’
– Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews
The drastic measures came as Victoria posted its single-worst day for new infections on Tuesday, with 191 confirmed cases.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said no one should give “false guarantees” that other states were safe or immune from sudden coronavirus outbreaks.
“It’s Victoria now, it could be anyone,” the MP told Sky News on Tuesday.
Border crossing crackdown
Melburnians with holidays booked were hitting the road ahead of the Wednesday night lockdown after the government confirmed people already on trips would not have to return home.
Meanwhile, Victorians with plans to travel interstate were on Tuesday night rushing to cross the border of NSW before it shut.
Under new border shutdown rules, only South Australian residents can enter their state from Victoria and those who do will be forced to quarantine for 14 days.
Hundreds of extra defence personnel have been deployed to border towns to help police man checkpoints.
Roadblocks were in place at Victorian borders by the early hours of Wednesday.
On the NSW-Victorian border shared by Wodonga and Albury, mayors were unsure on the finer details of the closures and exemptions as roads shut at midnight.
Police in Albury had been questioning motorists and said they turned back one car before midnight after the driver admitted they had come from a coronavirus hotspot in Melbourne.
Residents of the border towns are grappling with the ramifications of the coronavirus-induced closures, though state governments have confirmed that permits are to be issued for people who need to travel interstate for work or health care.
Adding to the confusion, the website to apply for a permit stopped working for a period of time on Tuesday night.
“In the interim, travellers will be able to demonstrate their eligibility to cross the border to police by carrying relevant documentation based on a category of exemption,” a Service NSW spokesperson told AAP.
No time for complacency
Associate Professor Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist at La Trobe University, said the latest sudden spike was largely due to Victorians becoming “very relaxed” following eased restrictions.
“It felt like we had overcome the worst of it and life was heading back to normal,” he told The New Daily.
“But all you need is a few days of uncontrolled community transmission and you lose control.
“Basically, we have what is a full-blown resurgence. We’re going to have to work really hard to control the spread.”
He added the outbreaks at several Melbourne hotels used as quarantine for returned travellers had also contributed to the virus’s spread.
The state’s hotel quarantine system is the subject of a judicial inquiry after the virus spread amid alleged infection control breaches.
Why the rest of Australia shouldn’t be ‘too cocky’
Other states and territories are not out of the woods yet – even if they keep their borders tightly sealed.
“No one should be too cocky in those states. This can happen really quickly,” Associate Professor Hassan said.
“My bet is that it will happen in NSW because they’ve got a huge, densely packed city.
“They’ve been quite fortunate up until this point, but it can turn very quickly.”
Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the Kirby Institute’s biosecurity program at the University of New South Wales, agreed.
“I would not be surprised to see epidemics detected in NSW and other states within the next few weeks,” she said.
“It is possible there has been seeding of infection to other states, and silent epidemic growth which has not yet being detected.”
Professor MacIntyre praised the Victorian Government for doing “all the right things” and making “difficult decisions”, warning against the “Swedish option” of keeping most of society open despite soaring infections.
“All they achieved was mass death, overwhelmed hospitals and reportedly, euthanasia of infected old and frail people,” she said.
So what’s next for the nation?
More easing and tightening of restrictions, depending on where outbreaks are occurring.
“It’s going to be like this until we get a vaccine,” Associate Professor Hassan said.
“Hopefully we’ll have learnt our lesson and we won’t relax so much next time.”
A tough day
Victorian Liberal opposition leader Michael O’Brien called the announcement of new lockdowns “a tough day” and “a devastating blow” for business.
“Many jobs simply won’t survive this,” he said in a statement.
Mr O’Brien claimed the state government had presided over a “catastrophic” situation”, and criticised the “failure on hotel quarantine (and) mixed messaging”.
The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, too, had dire predictions for the reinstated lockdowns.
“Victorian businesses will suffer, and some will permanently close,” the chamber said in a statement.
The Chamber’s chief executive, Paul Guerra, called on the federal government to extend its JobKeeper program for another two months beyond its scheduled September end-date.
The wage subsidy program is due to end just a month after the extra six weeks of Victorian lockdown finishes in late August, which Mr Guerra claimed would leave the state “months behind other states in recovery”.
Federal Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese tweeted on Tuesday evening: “My heart goes out to every Victorian right now”.
“This is going to be so hard for so many, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community,” he said.
Federal Greens leader Adam Bandt, whose electorate of Melbourne includes several of the locked-down public housing estates in the city’s north, said “we can’t leave behind public housing residents locked in homes, many who’ve had to wait for essentials”.
“We’re not through this until we’re all through this,” he tweeted.
The Prime Minister’s office was approached for comment.