Victoria’s daily average over the past week has been 84 – and the paper predicts that in mid September, there will still be 60 new cases a day.
It is unlikely that precise dates for easing restrictions will be given at today’s press conference to discuss the road map out of stage four. Instead, there will be a numbers-based approach, aiming to allow greater freedom of movement or work based on infection rates.
While those in regional Victoria are likely to see restrictions wound back sooner, Melburnians can expect only a few minor changes – a draft road map leaked earlier in the week suggested that exercise time could be doubled and that those living alone could invite someone else to visit for companionship.
Premier Daniel Andrews warned in the release of the modelling to news outlets that “we know this is a health problem in the first instance – we can’t begin to repair and rebuild until we aggressively suppress this virus.”
The universities’ research found that in 640 of the total 1000 simulations, opening when daily new infections ran to 25 or more triggered what they called “a yo-yo effect” where numbers kept rising and falling as restrictions were turned on and off.
The research concludes that aggressive suppression is “the best approach for avoiding the yo-yo effect”. Aggressive suppression is keeping daily numbers below 10, unlike elimination, which could be declared when there have been no new cases in the community for a fortnight or more.
Other Australian states have had far fewer cases when they have eased restrictions – New South Wales had four per day when restrictions eased to current levels. The paper cites the soaring second waves of infections in Israel, Spain and France when restrictions were eased as cautionary tales.
University of Melbourne professor of epidemiology Tony Blakely, one of the authors of the modelling, said there were two ways the model could be “beaten”.
He said NSW had performed vastly better than Victoria in both its contact tracing and infectious diseases control protocols in hospitals and aged care settings. If Victoria improved these two aspects of its pandemic response, the state could record fewer than 25 daily cases more quickly than the model predicts and the state could also limit the increase in cases more effectively once stage four restrictions are eased.
The underlying assumptions of the modelling are based on contact tracing performance and other metrics from the past few months.
“If we do our contact tracing better than we did three months ago, the contact tracers may be able to hold the case count without it going up again as badly as our model suggests,” he said.
Healthcare settings are driving about a third of Victoria’s total cases. If mask-wearing – ensuring masks are fitted correctly to a person’s face – and other infection protocols were improved in Victoria, which Mr Blakely said had been the case in recent weeks, numbers could drop more steeply than the model predicts.
Mr Blakely also said the lockdown could be lifted earlier even if cases were at 25 per day, provided the bulk of those cases were linked to outbreaks with a known source.
“I’m sick of lockdown, I want to get out of it too, but unfortunately if you come out of lockdown too early, too fast, the chance of the third wave by Christmas is pretty high – about 60 per cent,” he said.
“There are ways we can beat the model. We can do better.”
The researchers – Dr Jason Thompson from Melbourne University’s Transport, Health and Urban Design Research Lab, Professor Mark Stevenson from Melbourne University’s Transport, Health and Urban Design Research Lab, Professor Tony Blakely from the Population Interventions Unit at Melbourne University’s School of Population and Global Health and Professor Rod McClure from University of New England’s Faculty of Medicine and Health – used a simulation program that moves people around as if they were pieces on a chess board, with different characteristics. Some will be more infectious than others; some will be more vulnerable.
The model underpinning the fresh modelling has been published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
The number of active cases across Victoria fell to 1956 – down from a peak of 6800 in the first week of August – and active cases in regional areas dropped to 102.
There were 76 new cases identified yesterday, and only one of the new infections was from an unknown source. The premier welcomed the fall in case numbers but said there was “still a really significant challenge for us. To open up with those numbers would see the total number of coronavirus infections explode”.
The premier confirmed 10 of the 11 deaths recorded on Saturday were in aged care. It brought Victoria’s death toll among the elderly to more than 450, federal health department figures showed.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton struck an optimistic note, saying the virus was on its “last gasp”, but warned there was still tough work ahead of Victorians. “We need to work harder than maybe we’ve ever done before to make sure that that last gasp is, indeed, the last one”.
Opposition MP Ryan Smith said it was rich of Mr Andrews to promise to repair and rebuild the state when it was his failures that had left Victoria in such a bad position compared to the rest of the nation.
“Victorians are being made to pay for the mismanagement of a bungling premier,” Mr Smith said, warning there was growing frustration with Mr Andrews, and the prospect of lockdown lasting longer.
Mr Smith suggested getting students back to school and allowing sole traders, such as gardeners and tradespeople, to get back to work should be prioritised.
“And again, restrictions like the 8pm curfew, I don’t think anyone has seen any medical reason why that is in place,” he said.
A range of groups contacted by The Sunday Age who were part of a government consultation program last week said they anticipated a very slow loosening of restrictions by a government terrified of both the health and electoral consequences of a third wave of the virus.
One likely element of the “road map” to be detailed by Mr Andrews on Sunday was a staggered return to school campuses for Victorian students – the majority of whom have been learning at home since mid-July.
The Australian Education Union’s state president Meredith Peace said she had told Education Minister James Merlino the union was in favour of bringing select year groups back first.
“With such a disrupted couple of terms, schools need the opportunity to support students who have welfare needs and to see where they are at academically. That will be easier done if we don’t have every student back at the same time,” she said.
A leaked draft government plan this week indicated prep to grade two and students in years 10, 11 and 12 would return to school for term 4 on October 5, followed by the remaining students. Mr Andrews said the draft was legitimate but outdated and of “no status” on Thursday.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Michael Kidd reminded Australians it was important not to breach any lockdown restrictions during Father’s Day on Sunday.
“Please do not breach any restrictions in your local area to see your father or put his health and wellbeing at risk, especially if you are living in an area of community transmission or under restrictions,” he said.
Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Paul Guerra warned, in an email to members on Friday, that “returning to a city or statewide stage four lockdown every time an outbreak occurs cannot be an option”. He said the state needed “a plan for the future, not a plan to stay locked down”, and warned that failing to to get the health crisis under control would lead to an avalanche of business closures and permanent job losses.
Real Estate Institute of Victoria president Leah Calnan said she hoped the government moved to allow agents to take at least one or two people through a home for inspection, as was allowed before the stage four lockdown. “There have been no records of COVID through any real estate practices,” she said.
“We would be looking for private appointments to be returned at a minimum, and to allow some level of [staff to] return to the office,” Ms Calnan said.
Australian Industry Group Victorian head Tim Piper said the government had kept expectations of what would be announced on Sunday deliberately low.
Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.
Clay Lucas is a senior reporter for The Age. Clay has worked at The Age since 2005, covering urban affairs, transport, state politics, local government and workplace relations for The Age and Sunday Age.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.