Where next with Victoria’s lockdowns?

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Lockdown 6.2 is hard on all of us. For me, it is only irksome, realising that I will have to cancel my planned holiday in Broome for a third time, cancelling coffee and meal catch-ups with friends, and spending most of my day in my home office.

For some though, it has meant loss of employment, closure of their businesses, exacerbation of mental illness, more exposure to domestic violence, and initiation into drugs or increased alcohol intake as coping mechanisms.

Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit:Joe Armao

It is no wonder that some – even apparently some in the Victorian cabinet – are heeding the siren call for an early end to lockdowns at a time when just over half the total population is vaccinated, or 70 per cent of the adult population as the national plan phrases the phase B threshold.

I have enumerated above the cost of lockdowns, but government must weigh those against the benefits – controlling the spread of the virus, protecting our hospital system, and reducing deaths, especially in the vulnerable.

An early end to lockdowns will inevitably increase infections, and risk losing control of the pandemic. Victoria is an invidious position – it is so near, and yet maybe so far.

Other states are positioned differently. Tasmania and Western Australia are clearly COVID-zero. Life there is pretty much as normal as it can be. No masks. Shops and cafes open. Even, possibly, an AFL grand final in Perth. Those states will stick to their strategies, regardless of blandishments from the Commonwealth government to open borders and let tourists and the virus in.

At the other extreme is New South Wales. They have given up on managing COVID. Their chances of getting back to COVID-zero are negligible – a result of the “too little, too late” response to the initial outbreak. The result is clear for all to see. The NSW hospital system is overwhelmed, with people now being triaged in makeshift tents outside emergency departments.

NSW’s only option now is vaccination, and it appears the Commonwealth government is helping them by diverting supplies from other states.

The situation in NSW is exacerbated by the rhetoric, over the last 12 months, that “NSW doesn’t do lockdowns”. The social licence for tough and extended lockdowns in that state is weak and getting weaker.

Victoria sits somewhere between these extremes. It may be that the latest outbreak has been contained, and we are now trending down. Equally, we may still be on an upward trajectory.

Melbourne CBD on the weekend.Credit:Paul Jeffers

But even if we get the current outbreak under control, we are exposed to the consequences of NSW’s failure. It is inevitable that the virus will creep across the border again and another Victorian outbreak will occur.

The Commonwealth’s botched vaccination rollout means it will be at least another three months before a genuinely safe target for ending lockdowns – rather than a politically inspired one – will be achieved here.

So what should the Victorian government do?

It is too early to throw in the towel completely as NSW has done. Public health measures – such as movement and work restrictions – are still necessary to stop the collapse of the hospital system. But my sense is that the social licence for lockdowns is coming to an end. Maybe 200 days was our breaking point?

The Victorian government’s response should be a cautious one. As a first step, it could afford a more nuanced approach in regional Victoria, for example, distinguishing Shepparton from western Victoria.

And even though fully vaccinated people can still be infected and still spread the virus, maybe the government should relax some restrictions for fully vaccinated people, including cafes and the 5km rule, to lighten the burden of the lockdowns.

This would not mean abandoning a COVID-control goal; it would simply mean recognising the reality that the principal aim is to protect the public and the hospital system, and that we could still achieve that with a lighter touch.

Maybe it is what Premier Andrews meant when he announced yesterday he still intended to drive cases “down to very low numbers” before he contemplated opening up. Such a policy can only be safely contemplated when we are on the downward slope – that is, each person infected is no longer infecting more than one other person.

People line up outside the Melbourne Exhibition Centre vaccine hub.Credit:Getty Images

But above all else, the Victorian government should be pressuring the Commonwealth for more vaccine doses. Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate – that has always been the way out.

Victoria’s state government vaccination hubs have performed superbly well. Victoria’s vaccination rate is lagging NSW, but only because of yet more Commonwealth failures – this time failure to get vaccines to GPs and pharmacies so that we can get doses into arms through those outlets.

Victoria will have to maintain some movement restrictions and lockdowns, especially for the non- or partially vaccinated. But a cautious opening up for the vaccinated may make these restrictions more tolerable and more acceptable to a weary public.

The state’s strategy of announcing a clear goal and clear thresholds worked well in Lockdown 2.0, giving us hope and a foreseeable endpoint. This same approach should be used in the current lockdown.

As a first step, the Victorian government should announce now that restrictions will be eased for the fully vaccinated as soon as vaccination rates reach a safe threshold – perhaps when 70 per cent of all Victorians have had their jabs and infections are trending down.

Stephen Duckett is Director of the Health and Aged Care program at Grattan Institute and will be fully vaccinated with AstraZeneca by week’s end.

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