Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced an end to the curfew and a COVID-safe return to work for 127,000 Melburnians, as restrictions ease at 11.59pm tonight. He has also flagged a provisional early lifting of many other aspects of the lockdown on October 19.
The downward trend in new COVID-19 cases has been better than expected, with the crucial 14-day moving average of daily new cases reaching 22.1. This is good news for Victorians, prompting Andrews to move metropolitan Melbourne to the second step of the state’s roadmap to COVID-normal.
According to the roadmap, today’s announcement was contingent on the 14-day rolling average being below 30-50 cases. The 50-case mark was passed on September 17, and the lower bound of 30 cases was reached a week later, on September 24.
Rather than easing restrictions when the criterion for new cases was met, the government had also, unnecessarily, set a date for moving to the second step: September 28.
Before today’s announcement, the better-than-expected decline in case numbers, coupled with the reduction in the number of “mystery” cases with an unknown source, had led Andrews to flag the possibility of easing restrictions faster than the provisional dates in the roadmap.
This is indeed what he has announced, with the next step potentially moving forward from October 26 to October 19. The government will now rely predominantly on epidemiological thresholds rather than dates. But Andrews added it is necessary to monitor the effects of today’s announcement for a further three weeks.
Andrews and his advisors had to keep in mind the ultimate goal of reaching zero active cases. Lifting restrictions too soon would jeopardise that.
The main changes are cautious ones, and still consistent with the zero target. The key changes are shown below.
One of the most welcome changes will be the abolition of the curfew. It had no real evidence base, given the other restrictions in place, and it became a policy orphan with no one owning up to recommending it.
The other major change is to formalise the return of on-site schooling. The research evidence on schools is complex, with different countries adopting very different rules about whether children can attend. But evidence suggests transmission risk is lower for kids under ten, so primary school return is welcome.
The return of VCE and VCAL students is presumably based on the assumption older teenagers should be able to follow physical distancing guidelines.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews flagged on Wednesday that metropolitan Melbourne’s restrictions could be eased further than initially planned on Monday September 28.
Andrews wouldn’t confirm which restrictions will be eased, but from an outbreak-management perspective, we should be cautious about easing anything too quickly.
It would be a huge shame to see Victorians’ pain and sacrifices undone, and I hope the restrictions will be eased early based on epidemiological advice, rather than mounting political pressure.
The 14-day case average of 29.4 is based on the new cases announced each day, though sometimes cases are reclassified later on. According to my corrected data, the new case average is 30. Either way, it’s a vast improvement compared with the peak in early August when the 14-day average reached over 460.
Nevertheless, the current figure is still in the “red zone” of more than 100 cumulative cases in the past fortnight, where cases can spiral out of control if restrictions are eased too suddenly.
Ideally, the most significant easing of restrictions would only happen when the 14-day average hits the “green zone” of fewer than five cases, which is currently planned for October 26.
It’s risky to relax too soon, because there are still many “mystery cases” for which the source of infection is unknown. Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng confirmed these mystery cases are currently spread across 18 local government areas. He said:
Most of those are still in the areas where we are concerned […] Each local government area has a relatively small number of cases and I guess it does reflect that there has been community transmission out there.
These areas include Casey in Melbourne’s southeast, and Brimbank and Hume in the city’s northwest.
I would be very cautious about easing restrictions ahead of schedule when there are still mystery cases. There is likely still some community transmission that is yet to be detected by contact tracers.
Cheng added, however, that if the number of mystery cases continues to decline, this would give confidence there has been minimal further community transmission.
The early easing of restrictions could be justified if the new cases are within known risk groups and we are confident that the risk has been contained.
From an outbreak-management perspective this is the right approach. The curfew has several aims, one of which is to restrict the movement of younger people. Younger people have been disproportionately COVID-positive during Victoria’s second wave. Younger adults tend to be more socially connected, have more daily contacts with one another, and often work at several workplaces. All these factors increase the chances of acquiring and transmitting COVID-19.
There’s an ongoing risk to Victoria’s case numbers from residential aged care. If the virus continues to circulate in aged care, it poses a risk to residents and staff, and might also escape to the wider community via infected staff.
Aged-care homes must provide adequate personal protective equipment. There have been concerns among staff that surgical masks are not enough to prevent contracting COVID-19. The World Health Organisation does recommend a surgical mask and face shield, but this requires a minimum safe airflow change in rooms to prevent exhaled infectious particles from hanging in the air and causing airborne spread.
Scientists believe most transmission occurs through droplets, but poorly ventilated environments might explain the increased risk of airborne spread in confined spaces.
Most residential aged-care facilities will not be able to meet the safe level of room airflow of 40-80 litres per second per resident.
Therefore, in situations where airflow is not adequate, surgical masks should be replaced with respirator masks, such as N95 or P2 masks, to prevent staff acquiring the virus at work.
It’s likely that transmission in aged care homes will continue if this issue isn’t addressed. The issue of poor airflow could also apply to other workplaces like abattoirs, factories and shared office spaces. Going forward, they too should consider the risk of airborne spread.
Yet businesses and shareholders are far from representative of those most at risk.
The best evidence we’ve got suggests the hardest hit are Victoria’s already disadvantaged.
Those arguing for extended lockdowns make the point that they are not as costly as they might seem (to anyone) because their effects need to be compared not with business as usual, but with business in which a pandemic encourages people to stay at home and reduce spending.
Victoria’s job losses accelerated well ahead of the renewed Stage 3 and then Stage 4 lockdowns which began on July 8 and August 2.
But these are overall measurements. Lockdowns hurt some much more than others.
A study of 29 European Union nations found that people with high levels of education were twice as likely as people with low education to be able to work through lockdowns.
A British study found employees in the bottom 10% of earnings were seven times as likely as those in the top 10% to work in a sector that had been shut down.
An Australian study found low income workers were three times as likely as high earners to face a high risk of losing their jobs.
This isn’t obvious from mobility data, which seems to show the opposite.
Google statistics on the movement of people with Android phones show that residents of Melbourne’s most disadvantaged suburbs have restricted their travel the least.
The most likely reason that economically and socially disadvantaged Melbourne residents are still moving is that they are in jobs that don’t allow them to work from home.
A World Bank study finds the same thing on a larger scale. The extensive voluntary reductions in activity that proceeded lockdowns were present in only rich nations, not in developing ones.
This means, in the words of a Harvard University study, that in countries where many people live at or close to subsistence, it isn’t possible to save people from the pandemic without condemning them to deprivation.
The story is as old as the plague itself.
During the Black Death of 1348 to 1349, King Edward fled London with his relics and staff for the safety of his country estates. The poor had nowhere to flee. Even though the odds of surviving the year in London were less than 50%, the odds of surviving without work weren’t much different.
During Great Plague of London in 1655, so many people of means deserted the city that it was dubbed “the poore’s plague”.
Throughout history and across countries, disadvantaged groups necessarily have fewer choices and hence carry a greater share of the burden of quarantine-type measures.
We should expect business to represent the interests of its shareholders – and business claims should be viewed through that lens, but there are other victims of lockdowns, less able to provide ready quotes.
However well intentioned the lockdowns are, the already-disadvantaged are likely to be hurting the most.
From 11.59pm tomorrow (September 16), regional Victoria will take the third step out of COVID-19 restrictions, Premier Daniel Andrews announced today.
According to the roadmap revealed last weekend, the move to step 3 in regional Victoria could happen when the daily average number of cases for the previous 14 days was less than five, and there were zero community cases without a known source for 14 days.
Regional Victoria actually reached the 14-day moving average target on September 10, with 4.5, and by today the average had dropped to 3.6. They were just waiting to hit the mystery cases target.
Among the restrictions to be eased under step 3, up to ten people will be allowed to gather outdoors, and hospitality venues will be able to open again for sit-down service. Beauty salons and hairdressers will also reopen, and people who live in regional Victoria will be able to travel to other regional areas in the state.
This easing of restrictions is undoubtedly good news for regional Victoria. But it’s also reason for people in Melbourne to be optimistic.
Certainly, regional Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne are quite different in terms of the epidemiology of their respective second waves. But the targets set out in the roadmap do appear to be achievable.
The 14-day moving average of daily case numbers for Melbourne is currently at 52.9, and needs to drop below 50 to reach the target for step 2.
Based on my modelling of the 14-day moving average, Melbourne could reach this target as early as Thursday.
This model takes the 14-day moving average for the last 30 days, and it assumes the continuing downward trend is exponentially decreasing. That is, it plots a slow downward curve that approaches zero.
The target to move to step 3 is a 14-day moving average of fewer than five cases per day statewide. A similar modelling strategy shows this is likely to occur on about October 22.
Notably, there was no date set for the move to step 3 in regional Victoria, which is very different to the roadmap set out for metropolitan Melbourne.
In Melbourne, the second step is not due to occur until September 28, and the third step not until October 26 – and only then if case numbers have dropped below designated thresholds.
The key question for the Victorian government is whether to stick to this time frame, or allow for an earlier move to the second and third steps if Melbourne achieves the moving average targets ahead of time.
In a recent article on The Conversation, I called for a more nuanced approach to lifting restrictions. In other words, the government shouldn’t be too rigid with the roadmap.
The people of Victoria have been asked to make enormous sacrifices to get the outbreak under control, and it’s working. I believe the Victorian government should be willing to reward Melburnians by moving to the third step when they reach the relevant case threshold, regardless of the date.
It’s essential that over the next few weeks, Melbourne residents continue to stick to the restrictions, to help hit the targets as soon as possible.
The numbers of COVID-19 tests has dropped off in the past few days, averaging about 14,000 tests a day. With the lower number of cases and fewer people with respiratory symptoms now winter is over, this is not really surprising. But it’s vital high rates of testing continue, with a focus on hotspot areas, such as the Casey local government area.
As for regional Victoria, people there must also stick to the remaining restrictions. This will give them the best chance of moving towards step 4 and beyond.
Back in July, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson appeared in her then-regular spot on Channel Nine’s Today program.
A lot of these people are from non-English speaking backgrounds, probably English as their second language, who haven’t adhered to the rules of social distancing
Hanson added “a lot of them are drug addicts,” and “alcoholics” before noting if people were from “war torn countries” they “know what it’s like to be in tough conditions”.
The comments – and the way Channel Nine presented them – caused a storm of controversy. And Hanson lost her regular spot on the program.
But the episode didn’t stop there. Hanson then sent a gift to each of the residents of one of the towers in North Melbourne.
What is even more perplexing, the head of Australia Post reportedly intervened to make sure Hanson’s mail was delivered to their intended recipients.
For $A7 you can buy your very own branded stubby holder from the One Nation website.
Featuring Hanson’s image against a sunset orange background it is emblazoned with the words: “I’ve got the guts to say what you’re thinking”.
These were the stubby holders sent to the tower’s residents, which came with a note saying “no hard feelings”.
It’s difficult to imagine what kind of reasoning was behind this “gift”.
To their credit, the people managing deliveries to the tower discovered what was in the parcels, each addressed only “to the householder”. Fearing, quite reasonably, the deliveries would inflame an “emotional tinder box”, the deliveries were withheld.
If one’s political suspicion was roused by the stubby holder stunt, things became even more unbelievable when Australia Post chief executive Christina Holgate, was implicated in trying to make sure the parcels were delivered.
On hearing the people managing the locked down tower had intercepted the deliveries, Holgate’s legal counsel reportedly sent a threatening email to Melbourne City Council.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, who saw the email, reported it gave Melbourne City Council five hours to deliver the parcels, or said police might be notified.
Holgate has come under additional scrutiny of late. Australia Post has been breaking delivery records during the pandemic. But has also faced concerns about delays and service cuts.
Holgate is the highest paid public servant in the country, earning more than $2.5 million in pay and bonuses in the 2018-2019 financial year.
OK, CEOs earn a lot. But at a time when Australia Post is asking staff to work extra hours and use their own cars to deliver a backlog of parcels, its executives have still been eyeing up huge bonuses.
It is difficult to understand why Australia Post got involved in the stubby holder saga. Why would it want to stand up for a political stunt aimed at people in a hard lockdown?
Back in April, Australia Post’s regulatory requirements were adjusted due to COVID-19, allowing them to focus on parcel rather than letter delivery. The changes, backed by Australia Post, are due to end in June 2021.
In a statement, Australia Post said Holgate did not personally intervene in the stubby holder deliveries.
“Australia Post confirms that Ms Holgate did not speak to Senator Hanson or One Nation on this matter, nor did she threaten Melbourne City Council.”
Australia Post’s response has been to justify their actions purely on their legal obligation to prevent interference with the mail. No politics at play here, they claim, they were just doing their job.
As for Hanson, she was unconcerned, describing the whole thing as a “storm in a stubby cooler”.
But nobody said anything about the well-being of residents of the towers, who were the target of this terrible exercise in populist publicity.
Those residents, many of them vulnerable, were treated as collateral damage in this episode.
It doesn’t take a lot of guts to say Australia should expect much more from its politicians, its business leaders and major service providers.
CCTV cameras mounted on vans have recently been seen in public parks around Melbourne, ostensibly to nab anyone breaking lockdown rules. They are part of a joint initiative between several Melbourne councils, Victoria Police and the Commonwealth government.
Coming on the back of Victorian police arresting and charging a number of people for inciting others to break bans on public gatherings by protesting in the streets, there is likely to be widespread resentment to the presence of these mobile surveillance units.
Many people are already claiming the Victorian government has once again over-stepped the mark in its aggressive approach to suppressing COVID-19.
These mobile units are not new, though. They were introduced in 2018 to help combat crime. They are not cheap, either. The cost to purchase and operate four of the units has been estimated at $3.6 million.
But what are the laws around public surveillance of people going about their daily business or recreational activities outdoors?
Let me tackle this question by posing four related questions:
are the cameras legal?
are such surveillance tools effective?
are these measures acceptable in a vibrant democracy?
what protections should be put in place?
It needs to be stated at the outset the Constitution does not include any specific rights related to privacy. And the High Court suggested two decades ago that privacy was unlikely to be protected under common law.
The Victorian Charter of Human Rights, however, contains a provision that states people have the right not to have their
privacy unlawfully or arbitrarily interfered with.
But a lawfully installed camera designed to deter offending would not, on its face, defy the terms of the charter.
International law, too, provides some privacy protections. In 1991, Australia signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states
no one should be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy.
However, Australian parliaments have introduced few laws to enshrine these protections. The legislation that has been enacted has largely been limited to curtailing the use of privately monitored listening and surveillance devices and preventing governments and big business from sharing citizens’ private information.
The Australian Law Reform Commission has issued clarion calls to extend these protections in recent years, but these efforts continue to gather dust.
So, it should not be surprising that mobile CCTV cameras driven to and stationed in public places are perfectly legal.
Moreover, so-called “unmanned airborne vehicles” (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, are regularly deployed by police for surveillance purposes, too.
Both of these surveillance tools are backed by regulatory force at all three levels of government.
Proponents of these mobile surveillance units argue the perceived risks to privacy and heavy investment are worth it, given the social disorder they prevent and the help they provide police in solving crimes.
However, there is much research now that casts doubt on this assumption.
In one study in 2009, for instance, CCTV cameras were only found to reduce crime by 16% overall (and by only 7% in city and town centres and public housing communities).
The efficacy of these surveillance units in a health emergency has yet to be proven. The cameras would seem to be most useful in providing police with information regarding who is using the parks, and perhaps providing something of a deterrent to those who might consider breaching lockdown restrictions, but not much more.
Yes and no. On the one hand, there is no doubt people want the coronavirus restrictions to end. And if these units deter people from breaking lockdown rules, and this, in turn, helps bring the new case numbers down more quickly, people may accept the intrusion in their lives.
On the other hand, some are understandably alarmed at the increasing use of surveillance tools by authorities — dubbed “uberveillance” by sociologists.
Even advocates for civil liberties appear ambivalent about the curtailment of some basic rights during the pandemic.
Liberty Victoria President Julian Burnside, who has been a fierce defender of privacy rights, surprised many by telling The Age,
It all sounds pretty sensible to me. … We are in a war against the coronavirus, and when you’re in a war with anything, restrictions on your otherwise normal liberties are justifiable.
Liberty Victoria quickly sought to distance itself from the comments.
There is no doubt parliaments are the most appropriate bodies to determine the extent to which individuals can be subjected to lawful public surveillance.
Indeed, former High Court judge Michael Kirby argues the legislative arm of government needs to step up to the task of scrutinising emergency powers with more vigour.
Otherwise it simply becomes a tame servant of the executive, which is a common weakness of parliamentary democracies of the Westminster system.
But parliaments will only respond if citizens demand this of them, and there are very few signs of that at the moment.
In the meantime, there are a number of legal tweaks that should be undertaken to ensure the government’s spying on the public domain is appropriately measured:
we need to ensure the images and other data that are collected by surveillance units are stored appropriately and discarded quickly when no longer needed
we need to be able to hold police and other surveillance operators to account for any excesses in the manner in which images are gathered and shared
there needs to be a new legal remedy in the event there is a serious invasion of privacy by the inappropriate use or disclosure of images collected by surveillance devices.
True, we have the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner constantly reminding governments of the concerns associated with threats to privacy.
But without civic push-back, little will change. Parliamentarians are unlikely to limit the powers of the executive to allow mobile surveillance units to be parked in public places unless it becomes politically unpopular. One can but wonder when this tipping point may be reached.