However, some of the experts behind the report and the state’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, maintained that Australia had not made a mistake by not pursuing elimination.
Professor Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist with Melbourne University who contributed to the government report, compared the suppression strategy to a see-saw: on one side are Victoria’s restrictions, contact tracing and public messaging, and on the other are new cases.
“As you open society back up, at some point you’re going to exceed the balance and tip the see-saw like we’ve seen in Victoria. Then we have to re-adjust,” he said.
On Monday NSW Premier Gladys Berejikilian urged people from her state to avoid visiting Melbourne until further notice as Victoria recorded 16 new cases, including 12 of community transmission.
Professor Blakely rated Victoria’s chances of elimination under the current approach at 10 per cent due to persistent levels of community transmission.
He said while he was not advocating it, the only strategy to avoid similar backflips on restrictions in future would be for Victoria to try to eliminate the virus by returning to a hard lockdown for up to eight weeks.
“The discussion that should be happening behind closed doors – and it’s a really unpleasant one – is whether there is a strong case for Victoria to go back into lockdown,” he said.
“Then all of Australia will have eliminated the virus, or be close to eliminating it, and we can go back to normal life. Otherwise this will happen again and again.”
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said on Monday that Victoria was considering enforcing a hard lockdown on Melbourne’s COVID-19 hotspots, similar to the statewide “stay at home” restrictions in March.
Professor Allen Cheng, head of The Alfred hospital’s COVID-19 response and another contributor to the government report, said “everything is on the table” and targeted lockdowns would be reasonable.
Professor Cheng agreed with Professor Blakely that repeated changes to restrictions would be unavoidable, unless Victoria were to enforce a hard lockdown.
“I think everything is on the table after the messages over the weekend,” he said.
“It probably doesn’t make sense to lock down regional areas, for example … but we are worried about some parts of metropolitan Melbourne. All these things [such as lockdowns] should be considered at a very high level. We do need to get this current situation under control.”
Professor Shitij Kapur, the co-chair of April’s government report and the dean of Melbourne University’s medical faculty, said no country had successfully eliminated the virus by preventing new cases for a period of about two months.
Iceland achieved 14 days without a new COVID-19 case twice before new cases re-emerged, while last week New Zealand had seven new infections via hotel quarantine cases after previously declaring itself virus-free.
Professor Sutton indicated on Monday that Victoria would never attempt elimination but “if there’s a requirement for stronger action in order to keep numbers suppressed, we’ve said we’ll take those actions”.
“When you’ve got 150,000 new cases globally every single day, when quarantine cannot be 100 per cent – as we’ve seen in New Zealand, as we’ve seen here in Melbourne – you have to recognise that a single case could re-emerge anywhere in Australia,” he said
“So the suppression strategy recognises that, and it’s trying to control numbers as much as possible. That’s the approach we’re taking in Victoria.”
Professor Kapur said he was “not alarmed by what we are seeing in Victoria, but I am very cautious”.
“If anyone thought we would quickly get to a place where we could throw caution to the wind and resume our old ways, that was misguided,” he said.
“It was always going to be like this.”
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Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.