Too much or not enough? What the experts say about Victoria’s slow march out of lockdown
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The Victorian government announced on Wednesday that Melbourne’s lockdown would be extended until September 23.
Playground rules will be eased this week with an expanded 10-kilometre travel limit, a three-hour exercise limit, outdoor personal training and private real estate inspections to kick in after 70 per cent of Victorians had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The Age asked some experts what they think of the Victorian government’s latest path out of lockdown and what more could have been done.
Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology, Deakin University
- Which further restrictions could Premier Daniel Andrews have safely lifted? I do think the curfew could go. I still don’t quite know what it does except concentrate when people move around, and it just puts people under pressure. There’s no greater risk at 9pm just because you’re going to get caught by police. It creates more mental pressure than anything you gain in terms of infection control.
- Will these changes address the mental health concerns? Not enough. For a lot of people being out in nature is really important, particularly if you don’t have space in your home, and we have to recognise that people are living in all sorts of circumstances, but I don’t think that’s adequately considered.
- Could schools return safely now? Schools are a problem. We don’t know where the virus is in the community and we can’t guarantee that children won’t take it to school. Every time the virus goes into someone’s household, the children could be infected, and if it goes through [a] school, it jumps really quickly. The year 12 plan is a good plan and gives us a bit of time to get ready.
- Is one dose of vaccine for 70 per cent of Victorians enough to move to the next stage? It puts us in a good position. It won’t control the virus, and we will see an escalation in cases, potentially, if we take bigger steps [to lift restrictions] beyond that, but they’re not talking about big steps.
Robert Booy, infectious diseases paediatrician, University of Sydney
- Which further restrictions could Mr Andrews have safely lifted? The playground ban was always a silly idea. They need to now be looking seriously at how they can phase children back to school. It’s about children getting an education, socialisation and improvements in their mental health.
- Will these changes address the mental health concerns? It’s a start. I just looked at some data from Nepal – they have 900 more suicides this year than last year. The problem with poor countries is that people are going hungry and they’re not being vaccinated so I think we could take a bit more of an international perspective when it comes to mental health. We won’t get the next worst virus coming to us if we get the world vaccinated – not just ourselves.
- Could schools return safely now? Soon. Get people used to doing antigen testing twice a week and then you could pick up kids before they’ve got any symptoms.
- Is one dose of vaccine for 70 per cent of Victorians enough to move to the next stage?Victoria could go from 70 percent to 80 percent in one to two weeks, NSW is doing it at that rate at the moment. It would be sufficient enough to ease restrictions, and a signpost to say: ‘OK, we’re getting there’. A multipronged approach is essential, so the hard lockdown must be supplemented with the fastest uptake safely achievable.
Hassan Vally, epidemiologist, La Trobe University
- Which further restrictions could Mr Andrews have safely lifted? That’s a difficult one for me to answer because I’m someone who felt like we needed to stay the course and keep going. I accept that’s a different view to other epidemiologists, but I assumed we would still keep going without easing any restrictions. However, if you look at public sentiment, the playground issue seems to be a disproportionately emotional issue, and if opening playgrounds gives parents that feeling like they’ve got a few more options with their children and helps with their children’s mental health, with the guidance given today about masks and QR codes, I think that’s a pretty reasonable one.
- Will these changes address the mental health concerns? Yes. I think anything that you can give back to the community who feel like, I don’t like talking in cliches, they’ve hit a wall while running a marathon. We’ve been amazing all the way through this, but this lockdown is hitting people the hardest. I think it’s because we were at the finish line, and we realised there’s another two kilometres to go … and that was really difficult. This is low risk and helpful, and I think the community is going to appreciate it.
- Could schools return safely now? I thought the approach today was incredibly sensible. There’s little point trying to retrieve term 3 and we’ve got to look at prioritising Year 12 students because this group has had a difficult few years.
- Is one dose of vaccine for 70 per cent of Victorians enough to move to the next stage? I think all of those concessions are pretty low risk in the scheme of things given all the other things we’re doing. This just gives people some hope and a bit of a map to what the next little while is going to look like, and it gives people certainty. There’s nothing that dramatic in any of those, but it serves to provide a boost to people.
Tony Blakely, epidemiologist, University of Melbourne
- Which further restrictions could Mr Andrews have safely lifted? I think the playground was the most obvious one to ease. The mitigation measures of QR codes and masks to reduce the risk is important. We’re seeing a 5 per cent increase in cases per day, that means with vaccine coverage, it’ll eventually catch up. If the virus was continuing on its current trajectory, just using a simple Excel model, we are going to peak in October at 2000 a day. That’s not a scenario we’re looking forward to. We don’t want to be relaxing restrictions now and giving the virus any more room to move. If it went from 5 percent daily increase to even 6 or 7 percent, at the end of October, that peak would be two or three times higher. We really are in a bind.
- Will these changes address the mental health concerns? These are very modest releases, which is all we can do. For parents with young kids, it must be really unpleasant, so being able to have playgrounds open in a safer manner – it’s never safe, but just a bit safer – is welcome news. It’s a little step.
- Could schools return safely now? No. Absolutely not. The virus would have just spread among kids. Opening up schools is not possible. Maybe next term if we innovate. We need to think about how to ventilate the classroom, have gales going through them. It is summer next term. You can have all the windows open, they can be teaching outdoors, masks on all kids who can tolerate it. The virus is beating us at the moment, so we need to innovate.
- Is one dose of vaccine for 70 per cent of Victorians enough to move to the next stage? Let’s see where we are on September 21 because the reality is if the number of daily cases is going up faster than 5 per cent, we won’t be able to do them. But maybe somehow by innovation, or good luck, or contact tracers inventing new ways to do their business, cases will go up slower than that. I applaud the setting of a carrot target of 70 per cent first dose – it’s a good idea. But we will have to revisit the settings a week before we get to it.
Mary-Louise McLaws, epidemiologist, UNSW
- Are there any further restrictions Mr Andrews could have safely lifted? The answer is no. Victoria needs to start embracing rapid antigen testing, home testing. This should have been embraced a long time ago, but there is a very conservative approach that advises the Therapeutic Goods Administration against this, and we’ve now got to get into the 21st century.
- Will these changes address the mental health concerns? They won’t address all mental health concerns. The group that will suffer the most mental ill health because they are so stretched financially are the young ones, who haven’t always been able to work from home. We did a mapping exercise and found that there’s a big group of people in Melbourne – and for that matter in hotspots of Sydney – who can’t work from a computer at home, and they’re not being provided with enough financial support.
- Could schools be returned safely now? Yes, they could. Straight away, if we were using high-level rapid antigen tests.
- Is one dose of vaccine for 70 per cent of Victorians enough to move to the next stage? No, it is not … one dose will stop people going to hospital, which is great and will take the burden off the hospitals, but Pfizer and AstraZeneca only reduce transmission with one dose at about 33 per cent. That’s not nearly enough. You need that second dose to stop transmission. So if they want to open up and reduce transmission, they need to focus on the 16 to 39-year-olds, and get them to be double dosed as soon as possible.
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