“We believe we will be able to take that important step on the 19th of October,” the Premier said at his 87th consecutive daily press conference, adding the government would wait at least three weeks between each step. “We are so close, so, so close to beating this thing.”
The announcement comes after a week in which Mr Andrews lost his fourth minister in a year with the resignation of health minister Jenny Mikakos, who quit after the Premier gave evidence to the state’s hotel quarantine inquiry saying she was responsible for the botched system that led to the state’s devastating second wave of coronavirus.
Melbourne could take a further step in the easing of restrictions on November 9, two weeks earlier than planned, when public gatherings could lift to 50 and interstate travel would almost certainly return if the 14-day average daily case number reaches zero.
Business owners and industry group heads such as the Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra criticised Victoria’s new road map as still too slow. Mr Zahra said he was “deeply concerned” non-essential retail would remain closed until at least mid-October.
“That is simply too close to Christmas trading to allow viable retail activity,” he said.
In a joint statement issued on Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt said that easing restrictions was vital to get Victorians back to work and back to their normal lives.
“It will be important that more be done in the weeks ahead to safely ease more restrictions,” the statement says. “We note that at similar case levels NSW was fundamentally open while remaining Covidsafe due to a world-class contact tracing facility.
“As it stands this lockdown is already longer than that faced by residents in many cities around the world. We remain deeply concerned about the mental health impacts of a prolonged lockdown on Melbourne residents.”
The statement also says that “as many epidemiologists have encouraged, we would support Victoria in reviewing the trigger of five and zero cases with regards to the third and last steps” out of lockdown.
Epidemiologists widely supported the government’s commitment to a more nuanced approach to evaluating restrictions by focusing on the story behind each positive case.
The government released modelling on Sunday showing a move to a NSW-style set of restrictions on Monday would have resulted in a 41 per cent chance of a third wave within four weeks. Adopting NSW’s restrictions on September 14 – when Melbourne’s stage four was originally due to end – would have brought an 86 per cent chance of a third wave, it found.
Melbourne’s controversial curfew, which was set to be debated in a Supreme Court case from Monday, will lift but the five-kilometre limit on movement will remain in place.
Murdoch Children’s Research Institute modelling prepared for the government suggested the risk to students is probably lower than previously estimated, meaning the government will allow all primary school students to gradually return to campus from October 12 – an advancement on previous plans for only prep to grade 2 and VCE students to come back.
Aspiring Liberal MP Michelle Loielo’s case against the government’s 9pm curfew was scheduled for the Supreme Court on Monday, where she intended to argue it was disproportionate and violated Victorians’ human rights.
Three weeks after sparking controversy around the curfew by admitting it was not his idea, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton on Sunday announced he did not believe the curfew was proportionate.
“If you take today’s 16 cases, 15 of them are linked to known cases, clusters and outbreaks … that is a very different situation to where we have been in recent weeks,” he said.
“We always said that aged care cases would be a stubborn tail of this epidemic curve. That remains the case … and a curfew doesn’t address that transmission risk, obviously.”
Professor Sutton said the curfew would be replaced by a fine of almost $5000 for illegally gathering.
Comparatively, first-time drink-driving offenders receive a fine of up to $3200, while speeding more than 45km/h over the limit attracts an $826 fine.
Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely welcomed Sunday’s “extremely good” announcements and said it was the right time to remove the 9pm curfew.
“Given where we’re at, I think having the curfew was eroding public trust,” he said.
Epidemiologists earlier this month warned the government should not keep Melbourne under tight restrictions because of outbreaks in aged care and healthcare settings.
The Premier announced that the lifting of limits on workplaces will mean 127,000 Melburnians can return to work from Monday.
Supermarkets and food distribution centres will return to full capacity, while abattoirs – the site of multiple large outbreaks in Victoria – will increase “in line with levels we know are safe”. Sole traders doing gardening can return to work and outdoor pools will reopen from Monday. Golf courses will stay shut until at least October 19.
Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.