“Now that each one of us has had six months to consider this pandemic and to make our own judgments about it, surely it’s time to relax the rules so that individuals can take more personal responsibility and make more of their own decisions about the risks they’re prepared to run,” he told the audience.
He said that the goal in the responses to coronavirus had shifted from flattening the curve, so as not to overwhelm hospitals, to one of complete eradication, which he said was impossible.
“Governments have justified it as following the expert advice as if this has always been clear or as if we should be ruled rather than merely guided by unaccountable experts,” he said.
“It’s amongst us, we can’t get rid of it … realistically the only way to entirely eliminate the virus is to lock yourself off from the world indefinitely and I just don’t think that is realistic.”
He blamed governments for panicking and then becoming trapped in “crisis mode” for longer than necessary, “especially if the crisis adds to their authority or boosts their standing”.
“Much of the media has indulged virus-hysteria with the occasional virus-linked death of a younger person highlighted to show that deadly threat isn’t confined to the very old or the already-very-sick or those exposed to massive viral loads,” he said.
He said the curfews in Victoria and the ban on people from travelling more than five kilometres from their homes was the most severe lockdown tried anywhere in the world outside Wuhan.
The Victorian government won a six-month extension of its powers to declare the coronavirus pandemic an ongoing state of emergency, following a marathon debate in State Parliament on Wednesday night.
The extension of the powers allows the government to declare a state of emergency in rolling four-week blocks.
Victoria’s surge in cases in July and August forced Mr Andrews to pursue a ‘suppression’ strategy, which, like an ‘elimination’ strategy calls for drastic measures to limit the spread of the disease.
Unlike ‘elimination’ the goal isn’t the outright erdication of the occurrence of COVID-19, which would involve more drastic measures for longer, and, as New Zealand has shown, could prove difficult to accomplish nonetheless.
Mr Andrews has ruled out pursuing elimination.
Mr Abbott said when he was federal health minister he prepared for pandemics and shutting down parts of the economy was always in the mix of policy responses.
But he said he never contemplated ordering people to stay home.
“In any serious pandemic, people would naturally avoid going out unnecessarily,” he said.
“And where they did, it would be for some vital reason: work that couldn’t be done from home, essential supplies, and compassionate visits.”
Appearing later before the Commons’ Foreign Affairs committee, Stewart McDonald, an MP with the Scottish National Party questioned Mr Abbott about his use of the phrase “health dictatorship”, a term also used by the QAnon, far-right online conspiracy group.
Mr Abbott said he was not aware of QAnon and used the reference to describe the “very draconian restrictions” imposed in Victoria.
“To save lives presumably?” McDonald said. “For our own good in the judgement of Victorian Premier and the Victorian government.”
The Conservative chair of the committee then shut down Mr McDonald’s questions saying they were irrelevant to the work of the committee.
Mr Abbott, who successfully sought an exemption from the ban on Australians leaving the country, raised the possibility of the international border being reopened around Christmas – the same time Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he believed state border closures would be removed.
Speaking in Melbourne before Mr Abbott’s speech, Mr Andrews promised to outline separate road maps for lifting regional Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne out of their respective stage three and four lockdowns on Sunday.
He has said he hopes the state border closures are relaxed in time for Christmas.
“We have to stay the course on this so we’ll have as close to normal a Christmas Day as possible. All the sacrifice, the hard work that we have done, that has to count for something,” Mr Andrews said. He has previously said the lockdown imposed was not an easy decision to make but a necessary one.
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Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.