The federal government has concluded a $1 billion agreement, funded over 12 years, with Seqirus to secure supply from a new high-tech manufacturing facility in Melbourne which would produce pandemic influenza vaccines as well as antivenoms.
This would boost Australia’s sovereignty when the country was faced with a future pandemic, and make for quick responses.
Seqirus, a subsidiary of CSL Ltd, will invest $800 million in the facility, which will be built at Tullamarine, near Melbourne airport. It will replace Seqirus’ facility in the inner Melbourne suburb of Parkville which is more than 60 years old. The Victorian government has supported the procurement of the land for the new operation.
Seqirus says the complex will be the only cell-based influenza vaccine manufacturing facility in the southern hemisphere, producing seasonal and pandemic flu vaccines, Seqirus’ proprietary adjuvant MF59 ®, Australian antivenoms and Q-Fever vaccine.
Work on construction will begin next year; the project will provide some 520 construction jobs. The facility is due to be fully operating by 2026, with the contract for supply of its products running to 2036.
The present agreement between the federal government and Seqirus is due to end in 2024-25.
Seqirus is presently the only company making influenza and Q fever vaccine in Australia, and the only one in the world making life-saving antivenom products against 11 poisonous Australian creatures, including snakes, marine creatures and spiders.
Scott Morrison said that “while we are rightly focused on both the health and economic challenges of COVID-19, we must also guard against future threats.
“This agreement cements Australia’s long-term sovereign medical capabilities, giving us the ability to develop vaccines when we need them.
“Just as major defence equipment must be ordered well in advance, this is an investment in our national health security against future pandemics,” he said.
Stressing the importance of domestic production capability, the government says when there is a global pandemic, countries with onshore capabilities have priority access to vaccines.
Health minister Greg Hunt said: “This new facility will guarantee Australian health security against pandemic influenza for the next two decades”.
Seqirus General Manager Stephen Marlow said: “While the facility is located in Australia, it will have a truly global role. Demand for flu vaccines continues to grow each year, in recognition of the importance of influenza vaccination programs. This investment will boost our capacity to ensure as many people as possible – right across the world – can access flu vaccines in the future.”
To deal with the present pandemic, the government has earlier announced $3.2 billion to secure access to over 134.8 million doses of potential COVID-19 vaccine candidates developed by the University of Oxford-Astra Zeneca and the University of Queensland, Pfizer-BioNTech and Novavax.
The joy Melburnians feel about coming out of lockdown is palpable, but another thread is also emerging: if you don’t live in Melbourne and haven’t experienced what we’ve experienced, you can’t actually understand what we’ve been through.
COVID has affected all Australians, but these last few months have been different for us.
Research on collective trauma and community recovery after disaster and upheaval tells us this is common in groups that have faced terrible or challenging experiences together.
If you’re in Melbourne, there are many ways to help yourself and those near you as we emerge from this gruelling period. If you’re outside Melbourne, you can and should support your Melbourne mates — but there are a few things to avoid.
Was Melbourne lockdown really a case of collective trauma?
Collective trauma events are not just disasters; they also have community-wide effects, and challenge people’s understanding of the way the world works.
Collective trauma events are typically thought of as tragedies such as the Lindt Cafe siege in 2014, the Christchurch Mosque shootings in 2019 or the events at Dream World in 2016. But I’d argue the strain of the last months in Melbourne has been experienced as a type of collective trauma event.
This view is informed by my research into disaster recovery, mywork as a senior practitioner at Australian Red Cross, workplace seminars I have conducted during the pandemic, and my own experience living in Melbourne through this.
Collective trauma can have direct and indirect impacts. In the pandemic, direct impacts might be bereavement, the effect on your health, employment, education and access to services. Indirect impacts can be much harder to get your head around. They include changes to your worldview, your relationships, and how you see yourself.
For example in pre-pandemic times you may have been in a very equal relationship where domestic duties were evenly shared — but in lockdown, maybe one partner shouldered a bigger burden of childcare and housework, or was under more pressure at work. These stressors can throw the relationship out of whack and have a long term impact.
People who lived alone during lockdown may have watched their relationships change and might wonder if things can go back to how they were.
In the first wave, there was a sense of “if we just batten down the hatches and get on with it, we will get through this.”
In the second wave, people in Victoria were confronted with a realisation that much in life is outside our control and recovery may not be linear. Instead of thinking “we just need to get through this part and then we’ll get back to how things were”, there was an unsettling day-to-day challenge of thinking, “What if this keeps happening? What if we can’t stop it? What if this changes the way I thought the world worked?”
So you had this disconnect where people outside Victoria kept saying “You’ll get through this! Once you’re on the other side things will be normal!” but, for many of us, those well-meaning cheers of encouragement didn’t line up with our actual experience.
Of course, people in other parts of the country who have been shaken in similar ways, and the restrictions Melburnians have experienced recently are faced by some people all the time. But in Melbourne, the relentlessness has been difficult to escape.
Getting support from others who lived it
We know from research that if a community has been through a challenging experience together — whether that’s bushfire, flood or some local horrific event — getting support from others who experienced it is crucial.
In my work with the Red Cross, we try to encourage people to connect with others after disasters. Just coming together to talk about what happened gives people the opportunity to feel a sense of hope, to normalise their experience and to be able to talk in a “shorthand” with others who will understand, because they went through it too. It’s a relief.
But all the things we’d normally suggest in the early stages of disaster are systemically dismantled by COVID. People have tried to stay connected online but it’s not the same. It’s tiring. It’s been harder to draw on normal points of support, which is crucial to recovery.
If you’re in Melbourne, recognise that we’ve all been through something huge and exhausting. Everyone is going to be in a different place. Try and be as patient and kind as you can with yourself and the people around you.
Dos and don’ts for people outside Melbourne
The research on collective trauma tells us if you haven’t been through the event, you’ll never quite understand. That doesn’t mean people outside Melbourne haven’t had their own experience, or can’t help.
Think about any upsetting personal experience you’ve had, such as miscarriage, divorce or the death of a parent. When someone who hasn’t experienced that specific trauma says “I know how you feel”, you might have felt misunderstood and even resentful or rageful.
You might think, “Not only do I need to explain myself and my feelings to this person — which in itself is exhausting and upsetting — I also have to find the energy to explain why what they said was wrong, even though I know they meant well”.
So over the next few weeks and months, don’t say “I know exactly how you feel” to your Melbourne friends and family. Unless you actually have been through the same thing in another setting, you don’t know how they feel. This experience was very specific.
Instead, ask “What has this been like for you?” and listen to what the person is saying. Say, “That sounds difficult. Tell me why, because I haven’t been in that situation”.
Staying open and empathetic
Research in this field talks a lot about the five mass trauma intervention principles, which are about promoting:
1) a sense of safety
2) a sense of calm
3) a sense of self-efficacy and community efficacy (belief in one’s community or one’s own ability to do something well)
The lovely thing about these principles is they can be applied in many situations, whether that’s holding a press conference, consoling a friend or socialising with colleagues.
Good leaders promote these five things in times of crisis.
When we talk to each other as friends, try to keep those five principles in mind. Be open and empathetic in your listening.
Don’t be scared to talk to each other about how you’re feeling, and don’t be scared to ask your Melbourne friends about what happened.
But recognise that if you haven’t been through it, a good place to start could be “I can’t imagine what that was like. How can I help?”
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews today announced the most significant easing of Melbourne’s coronavirus restrictions since the state went into “stage 3” lockdown on July 9.
From 11.59pm on Tuesday night, retail, restaurants, cafes and bars will finally be able to open up in Melbourne. Gatherings of up to ten people outdoors are now allowed from any number of households, and the four reasons to leave your home have been abolished. Outdoor contact sport for under-18s returns, as does outdoor non-contact sport for all ages.
Residents will have to wait until Tuesday for confirmation on how many visitors they’ll be allowed in their homes, as Andrews reiterated that indoor gatherings represent the highest risk of transmission. But he ruled out a “bubble” approach, which I think is smart — if the rules are too complicated they become harder to follow.
The 25km travel limit and the “ring of steel” between Melbourne and regional Victoria will be removed from midnight on November 8. Gyms and fitness centres will also reopen from that date.
Second wave defeated
Although we’ve been through a rollercoaster of emotions over the past 36 hours, the recording of zero new COVID-19 cases today and the further relaxing of restrictions marks the official end of the second wave in Victoria.
By working together, after the peak of more than 700 new cases a day in early August, Victorians have brought virus transmission under control, and now squashed it completely. For this, all Victorians should be commended.
This is a significant achievement — our equivalent of overcoming a ten-goal deficit at half-time in the grand final and starting the final quarter with a slender lead. Although the work is not done, and we’re exhausted, we should celebrate what we have been able to achieve.
Of course, we cannot ignore what happened in the northern suburbs of Melbourne this past week. The timing of this cluster was unfortunate, and the resulting postponement of the announcement of the relaxing of restrictions yesterday was, for many of us, devastating. But to frame it as a positive, if there was any lingering uncertainty about our capacity to respond to clusters, this should now be laid to rest.
The incident provided the perfect opportunity to show how effectively we can handle clusters. By targeting contacts of known cases as well as contacts of contacts, we’ve shown that, rather than crude geographic lockdowns, we can control transmission of the virus by bringing lockdowns to where the cases are.
This is what best-practice public health looks like, and the government should be commended for continuing to refine and improve the public health response to these clusters. We should now be able to place our trust in the public health response.
With relaxed restrictions comes personal responsibility
But it’s important to be aware these newly regained freedoms come with obligations. As prescribed restrictions ease, the pendulum swings towards individuals taking responsibility for managing their risks, rather than government telling you what you can and can’t do.
As Andrews said, “this virus isn’t going away”. So it’s expected that we continue all of the behaviours we’ve come to know, such as regular and frequent hand-washing, practising physical distancing, avoiding large crowds, and wearing masks when you leave the house.
And most important of all, make sure you get tested as soon as possible if you develop even the slightest of symptoms.
Victorians have shown how responsible they are, it’s time to reward them with the trust they’ve earned.
Of the 215 nations and territories that have reported COVID-19 cases, 120 have experienced clear second waves or late first waves that began in July or later. That’s according to the Worldometer global database, which sources data from national ministries of health and the World Health Organisation.
Of these 120, only six have definitively emerged from their second wave: Australia, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore. I am not including New Zealand, as the series of clusters that arose in Auckland in mid-August never evolved into a clear second wave.
Ultimately, Victoria has performed extremely well by international standards. Only Vietnam and Hong Kong have enjoyed comparable success in quashing the second wave. Victorians’ sacrifice during lockdown has left Australia well placed to sustain very low numbers of cases through the coming summer.
A grim global context
Any comparison between Australia and other countries takes place amid a grim global context. The worldwide tally of cumulative cases is adding one million new cases every three or four days. On Wednesday, of the 100 countries with the highest total reported cases, just seven reported fewer than 50 new cases: Australia, China, Nigeria, Singapore, Ivory Coast, Zambia and Senegal. The same day, France and the United Kingdom each reported more than 26,000 new cases, and 20 European countries posted all-time daily record numbers.
Some European countries, such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Georgia, are now reporting daily case numbers 25-30 times higher than during their first waves.
Europe and North America face enormous challenges to control their outbreaks as winter looms and pandemic fatigue sets in. But already there are signs of decisive measures including a national lockdown in Ireland — very similar to Melbourne’s — and night curfews in Paris, seven other French cities, Brussels, Athens and Rome. Their current struggles stand in stark contrast to Australia’s situation.
Israel’s second wave came early
Which countries offer the most instructive comparison with Australia? Let’s start with Israel, one of the first countries to experience a second wave far more severe than the first.
Israel was also a founding member of the long-forgotten First Movers Group, comprising Austria, Denmark, Norway, Greece, the Czech Republic, Israel, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Each member nation implemented restrictions early in the pandemic, and held a virtual summit in May to share tips about controlling the virus. Since then, every member except New Zealand has experienced a major second wave.
Israel’s second wave was largely caused by transmission among high school and middle school students, and an uncoordinated exit from the first lockdown. By the end of May, citizens were allowed to go to shopping centres and community gatherings, despite a growing resurgence of cases. During the Israeli summer there was minimal enforcement of face mask use, and moderate restrictions were reimposed on July 17.
Cases continued to surge, prompting a second lockdown introduced on September 18. This included restricting people’s movement to within 1km from their homes. The mishandling of the first wave had eroded public trust in the government, and morale was seemingly bleak during what was the first national lockdown in the world in response to a second wave. While cases have declined in the past few weeks the country has not yet emerged, with daily new case numbers still between 800 and 1,100.
National lockdowns not essential for success
Four of the five Asian countries that have emerged from their second wave demonstrate that lockdowns aren’t an all-or-nothing choice. There are intermediate options, but they only work if certain conditions are met. These include effective testing, contact tracing and isolation capacities; a culture of wearing masks and following public health directives; electronic contact tracing; and selective local restrictions such as closing bars, restaurants and places of worship.
Vietnam was one of the first countries to contain its first wave and did not record a single death until July. Measures included early border closures, aggressive testing and tracing, and enforced quarantine of all cases and their contacts. This may not be an option in less authoritarian countries. Vietnam did have a national lockdown for a two-week period in April.
Clear communication with the public was a crucial element of Vietnam’s response. The government used a range of creative ways to spread messages about symptoms, prevention and testing sites, including via state media outlets, social media, text messages and, famously, a viral song about the importance of handwashing.
After 99 days of zero daily cases, Vietnam’s first community transmission case was reported in Da Nang on July 25. It started with a man who tested positive without any travel history, and it’s still unclear how he contracted the virus.
By September 4, Vietnam’s health ministry had confirmed 632 new cases and 35 deaths. As during the first wave, blanket testing was conducted in Da Nang, transport in and out of the city was cancelled, and bars and restaurants closed. The same local measures were implemented in certain neighbourhoods in Hanoi when new cases were identified. The country has not reported any community transmission since early September.
Besides enforced quarantine, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea have mostly followed the same strategy as Vietnam and haven’t imposed blanket lockdowns. After two months of near zero daily cases, South Korea experienced a series of spikes linked to bars, nightclubs and karaoke venues, with a major surge in August linked to a large church. The response has been characterised by robust decentralised testing, contact tracing and isolation, and a registration system at entertainment venues based on QR codes. However, the country is not yet out of the woods, reporting 50-90 cases a day.
Likewise, Japan continues to report 400-700 cases a day. But Hong Kong is approaching the same level as Victoria, reporting between five and 18 cases a day.
Singapore is a very different case. It has by far the highest per capita number of cases in Asia. With a population of just 5.8 million, the country has reported 57,921 cases — more than twice the number of Australia (which has more than four times the population).
Between mid-April and mid-June, Singapore experienced a massive spike in cases mostly among overseas migrant workers. On June 19, the country eased restrictions opening restaurants and gyms. In the seven subsequent weeks leading up to August 8, Singapore reported 13,096 new cases or 267 per day. Cases have subsequently declined to single digits, comparable to Victoria.
Comparing different countries’ fights against COVID-19 is not a straightforward exercise, given differences in demography, geography, health system capability, and government strategy.
Perhaps most importantly, not every country has tried to get down to zero, or near zero, community transmission. This may not have been a realistic goal for countries with less border control than Australia.
Also, as Victorians understand acutely, the virus is unpredictable. Today, as the crisis accelerates in Europe and elsewhere, Victoria’s “zero new cases” are the envy of the world. But there can be no certainty about where things will be in a few months’ time.
All of this is to say that a favourable international comparison should not encourage complacency. But it is nevertheless true that Victoria’s efforts are notable on the world stage. The state’s success has warded off a significant human toll and further economic damage. As a result, Australia has a much better chance of returning to an approximation of “normal life” in the new year.
Victorians should be proud of these efforts, and the starkly different outcomes in countries that were in a similar position should reassure them that the efforts were worthwhile.
Surfing the second wave: Victoria, Singapore, then daylight
On August 5, Victoria’s seven-day average of daily new cases reached 533, the worst numbers seen anywhere in Australia.
Several other countries had similar numbers around that time, including Canada, Japan, Singapore, and most of Europe. They had taken different paths to get there; for Europe, these numbers represented a low ebb, not a peak. But the trajectories after this period diverged even more dramatically.
As the chart below shows, case numbers in several European countries began to accelerate steeply and are now much worse than ever. In contrast, Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Singapore, and Australia have so far kept case numbers at a moderate level.
But as this next chart shows, there is significant divergence even among these relatively stable countries. Sweden appears on track to replicate the sharp acceleration seen elsewhere in Europe. In Denmark and Japan, case numbers remain at a moderate level but are not trending towards zero. Only Victoria and Singapore, which peaked at around 300, have returned to single digits.
By suppressing their second waves, Victoria and Singapore are well placed to join a small club of countries that have sustained zero or near-zero cases, including New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, China, and the rest of Australia. The dividend for these countries has been economic, not just health-related, as the chart below shows.
Victoria’s lockdown has been long and difficult, but it now occupies a rare and envious position. As Victorians await new freedoms on the next step towards COVID-normal, they should feel a sense of accomplishment.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced on Sunday a further easing of coronavirus restrictions, as Victoria’s 14-day average of new daily cases continues to trend downwards.
Among the changes, Melburnians were told that from November 2 they can have two visitors at home per day, plus any dependants. Regional Victorians can already enjoy this rule, as their 14-day rolling case average is much lower at 0.4, compared with Melbourne’s 6.4.
This new rule replaces the “bubble” concept featured in the original roadmap. Under the previous plan in Melbourne, “step 3” of easing restrictions included a household bubble, whereby residents could nominate one other household with whom to socialise exclusively at home.
I understand the lifting of restrictions must be done compassionately with an eye on collective mental health. But from an outbreak-management perspective we must be very careful about indoor gatherings. The two people per day rule seems to be riskier than an exclusive bubble.
The bubble contains the infection risk
The risk of indoor spread is often greater because of poor ventilation, which might add to the risk of airborne spread. Further, people can unmask and fail to maintain physical distancing, which are more likely to happen indoors.
Close indoor contact poses the highest risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton reminds us indoor contact is about “20 times more dangerous than outdoors”. This is reflected in one study from Japan, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, and estimates “the odds that a primary case transmitted COVID-19 in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment”.
The practice of exclusive social bubbles likely makes outbreaks easier to contain. The only people an infected person would have close indoor contact with would be their own household and their bubble household. In this scenario, contact tracers would know exactly whom to contact for isolation, testing and interviewing.
Here’s why the new lifting of the social rule is riskier
The proposed new rule could make timely contact tracing more difficult. With Melburnians allowed to have two adults over per day, they could have up to 14 contacts per week who don’t come from the same household.
Let’s go through a hypothetical example.
Say you are exposed to the virus unknowingly, on day zero. Over the next few days you start having visitors to your house. You can become infectious up to three days before showing symptoms. When COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed while asymptomatic (symptom-free but infectious) and followed up for at least seven days, up to 20% remain asymptomatic but infectious to others. Half of all people infected will develop symptoms around day five and day six and 97% will develop symptoms within 11 days.
So, you could be infectious to your visitors between day three and day five after being exposed while asymptomatic. That leaves three days when you could be contagious without knowing. We think people are more contagious when showing symptoms, but it’s widely accepted now that people can, and do, transmit the virus while asymptomatic.
Under the upcoming rule, during this three-day window, you could theoretically pass the virus to six adults from six different households (assuming you’re an extrovert who has lots of friends round for dinner). They can then transmit it to their households and friends in three days’ time to 18 people while they are asymptomatic. If your friends also brought their children or other dependants, who then got infected and went to school, the number could be even higher. Under the exclusive bubble, the problem would have been confined to just two households.
Then, after your final two guests leave on the evening of day five post-infection, you develop symptoms. You get tested on day six because your cough or sore throat did not go away. Your positive result is returned on day seven and a contact tracer interviews you within 24 hours. On day eight your visitors will start to be interviewed. If they don’t get interviewed immediately, your friends infected on day three have now already infected two others. Over the next two days your other four friends also became infected and passed it onto their friends.
Obviously this is a worse case scenario. But you can see how the chain of transmission can easily get out of control. That’s why being tested as soon as you have symptoms is so important. It speeds up the tracing of every contact you had over the 72 hours prior to your symptoms.
If we added to our scenario continuous asymptomatic transmission (where you never developed symptoms) it becomes even more concerning. This is because your infected friends could go on to infect many others before someone becomes sick and alerts contact tracers. Even more concerning is when you delay testing, which makes it even harder for you to recall who your contacts where and when your day zero was.
This is just a hypothetical situation. But it illustrates why I’m concerned about allowing widespread indoor close contact.
The hope is that new daily case numbers, by the time this rule is implemented, are so low the risk of new chains of transmission is very low too. Meanwhile, Victoria’s contact-tracing team is more robust than ever before.
The other relaxed restrictions are less concerning
The other relaxed restrictions are of little concern. Allowing ten people to gather outdoors, from only two households, poses a negligible risk.
The extension of the 5km travel radius to 25km makes epidemiological sense. The risk increases when you allow people from high-risk areas into low-risk areas, so maintaining the “ring of steel” between metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria is logical. This approach of “ring-fencing” is a well-established tool and is why Wuhan, the city where the pandemic began, controlled the outbreak early and is now welcomingmillions of tourists.
The next step, planned for November 2, also sees the return of retail shopping. This poses negligible risk as long as shoppers wear masks, maintain hand hygiene, and use QR codes on entry. In my view, the risk of transmission from wandering through shops is much lower than having people over to your house.
Victoria recorded one new case of COVID-19 on Monday, another fantastic result that suggests the coronavirus outbreak there is now being well controlled. Premier Daniel Andrews said on Tuesday the state was “well placed this weekend to be able to make very significant announcements about a further step to opening”.
It’s worth acknowledging what a fantastic job everyone has done in Victoria. Huge sacrifices have been made, people have done the hard yards in difficult circumstances, and now it’s time to step our way out.
Here are answers to common questions about emerging from lockdown and how to make sure you’re doing it safely.
When and how should the Victoria-NSW border reopen?
The Sydney Morning Herald reports the NSW-Victoria border could reopen within a month (and Andrews said he would like to see NSW reopen to regional Victoria as early as this week).
The Herald quoted NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian saying:
We are very keen to see what happens in Victoria once further restrictions are eased because that’s the real test […] And if Victoria demonstrates that they’ve […] upped their contact-tracing capacity, that they’re able to demonstrate they’re not going to have uncontrolled outbreaks while they’re easing restrictions, well that will give us confidence to open the borders.
So there’s a bit of guesswork here but if you match her comments up with the current roadmap to ease restrictions, it sounds like there’s a chance the border could be reopening some time in the first half of November.
There will be a period of watching closely how well Victoria does as restrictions ease; this will be the real test of where Victoria is at in terms of suppressing transmission.
But once you have confirmation NSW and Victoria are pretty much tracking the same way, there’s no reason to keep the border closed. There are plenty of good economic and social reasons to have it open.
Even though the numbers look fairly similar between Victoria and NSW, the shape of the two outbreaks has been and remains slightly different. In NSW, most new cases are from overseas arrivals and the number of mystery cases is lower, as shown in this excellent breakdown published by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
So, quite reasonably, there’s a bit of caution about letting Victorians into NSW; there’s more uncertainty around exactly where Victoria sits in terms of controlling the spread of the virus. But as long as things continue to go well in Victoria as it opens up, NSW can have greater confidence it’s safe to reopen the border.
How should the opening of the border be managed? Well, I don’t think you can attempt a staged opening of a border. The whole point of a border reopening is to allow free movement between the two states. Either you wait until you’re confident and then open the border, or you don’t do it at all. You can’t half open it.
Is fishing allowed in Victoria?
For Melburnians, the answer is basically yes, assuming there’s a fishing spot within your 25km radius and you’re sensible about it. As with all activities, it’s important to stick to the restriction changes announced this week and follow hygiene and distancing rules. (Use this ABC tool to find out what’s within 25km of your Melbourne home.)
For regional Victorians, you can go fishing as long as you’re being COVID-safe and following the restrictions (outlined in the Instagram post embedded above).
When fishing or boating you must keep a 1.5m distance from other participants, wear a fitted face covering at all times (except for children under 12 or where an exemption applies), practice good hygiene and not share equipment.
I’m not much of a fisherman myself but, as an epidemiologist, I think fishing sounds like a lovely, low-risk, relaxing outdoor activity — if you don’t mind dealing with the fish.
When can Melbourne people travel to regional Victoria?
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, for Melburnians:
Travel to regional Victoria is still only allowed for permitted purposes even if this is within 25km. This means you cannot travel into regional Victoria for exercise or recreation.
This is the “ring of steel” you have heard so much about, the aim of which is to protect regional Victoria from the virus in metropolitan Melbourne.
The government’s Roadmap for reopening currently says when there have been zero new cases in the community for more than 14 days, the state can move to the roadmap’s final step. Then, travel within Victoria will be allowed (but you can’t enter any restricted area).
According to the third step in the roadmap, regional Victorians:
…must not travel into metropolitan Melbourne under current restrictions, except to buy necessary goods and services, for care and compassionate reasons or permitted work or education. While in metropolitan Melbourne you must comply with the metropolitan Melbourne restrictions.
You can travel through metropolitan Melbourne on your way to a holiday in regional Victoria but shouldn’t stop unless it is for one of the three permitted reasons.
Being smart about it
As the pendulum shifts away from the government telling us what we can do, to us making our own decisions, it’s important to be COVID-safe in the way we navigate this new normal.
That means limiting your contact with people, wearing a mask, practising social distancing and hand hygiene, staying home when sick, and getting tested if you have symptoms.
After days of speculation, today’s announcement by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was pretty much as we expected: a significant lifting of restrictions, albeit only a half-step out of lockdown.
From 11.59pm tonight, Melburnians will be able to travel up to 25km from home, with no time limits on exercise or recreation, bringing the chance to play a round of golf or visit the hairdresser.
Even more encouragingly, we may only have to wait a week until the lockdown is lifted, the “four reasons” to leave home are removed, and retailers and other businesses can once again open their doors.
Andrews said the planned move to step three of the COVID-19 roadmap could be brought forward a week from its provisional date of November 1 if case numbers — now tracking at 7.5 new cases a day for metropolitan Melbourne and just 0.5 in the regions — remain favourable.
“Victorians have stayed the course, and we just have a little longer to go,” he said.
I agree Victorians can rightly be proud, because this lockdown was a very big ask. In fact, I see no reason why we can’t remove blanket rules such as the 25km radius and Melbourne’s “ring of steel” immediately.
The blanket restrictions in Melbourne, which have been in place since early July, have bought time to rebuild our public health response, with stronger measures for testing, contact tracing and isolating outbreaks. The idea is to “bring the restrictions to the virus”, meaning we can now contain it wherever it might appear.
As a result, restricting the general public’s movements with the help of blanket rules makes less sense, because many Melburnians now have a minuscule risk.
I don’t understand why we need to impose a 25km limit. It’s such a big radius but will still exclude people who live at opposite ends of the city from seeing each other. Perhaps the fear is too many people will congregate in popular or scenic places. But surely that can be managed by scrutinising those particular places.
In contrast, when Singapore was coming off its second wave, it lifted restrictions when COVID-19 cases were at 60 per million people, per day. Melbourne’s current average is just over 1 case per million people, per day. If Andrews were to promote Victoria’s strategy to the rest of the world, I’ve no doubt they would agree it’s been a success, but they would probably also wonder why it is taking so long.
We had an extended blanket lockdown that was enough to quash the virus multiple times over in households. But we weren’t able to contain it in aged care, certain workplaces, and complex households.
With cases now so low, the idea that all public movement equals viral spread is not true. There’s a lot more to this virus than this sort of reductionist approach. We know probably 70% of people don’t even pass it on, and that many cases are the end of a chain of infection. If we do get a cluster, we will likely pick it up. This gives me confidence Melbourne will be able to open up fully next weekend.
The wholesale rebuilding of our contact-tracing means we are now very much on the front foot. Health authorities should continue urgently interrogating and isolating new cases, particularly mystery ones.
But for the wider public, it is now important to instil a sense that the government trusts people to be sensible for themselves. The more rules we have, the harder it is for people to have a sense of agency.
The rules should now be focused on areas where there is greatest risk. Unnecessary blanket rules might get in the way of people buying in. For instance, the ring of steel shouldn’t be necessary, given the testing and tracing measures we now have in place. What’s more, I think it will be a long time before people go back to their old patterns of movement, given that people have become acclimatised to staying at home.
This also means it’s easier to consider lifting border restrictions. While we’ve been busy fighting off the second wave we’ve built the health response to a point where we can live with the virus. So things like borders become less crucial.
If authorities aren’t busy policing things that don’t make much of a difference, such as the 25km rule, it will free up resources and also mean people have one less rule, and one less fine, hanging over them.
I would also urge authorities to allow people to wear masks only in situations where it makes a real difference, as opposed to everywhere. It’s easier to trust the public to do that when they’re not being told to wear them all the time.
Over more than three months, Victorians have grown used to being told what to do in intense detail. Now it’s time for people to get back some control, and I’m hopeful we can do that in a way that’s safe.