Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Just under 2500 people in Victoria tested positive to COVID-19 last week, with the Andrews government seemingly unable to curb community transmission. The premier conceded on Sunday that it was unlikely Victoria’s stage three restrictions would end in three weeks as originally planned, saying “these numbers are far too high”.

Caught between lockdown fatigue and a rising caseload, the Victoria government opted for a half-pregnant solution. This has resulting in the worst of both worlds: cases are still climbing (albeit at a slower rate) while the economic carnage continues.

Pick a lane

At the time the government could have taken two approaches. The first was a shorter but harder lockdown while running a massive testing regime. The other option was the Sweden approach of allowing the economy to function but devoting significant resources to protecting the vulnerable, like nursing homes.

Given the rest of Australia had almost eliminated the virus, option two was never really feasible. So how could option one have played out?

First, follow China’s lead when Beijing encountered its second wave in early June and quickly test a significant proportion of the population to detect asymptomatic carriers, some of whom unwittingly become “super spreaders”.

If Victoria had tested 100,000 people a day from July 1 (when the lockdowns restarted in selected suburbs), more than half of Melbourne would have been tested by now, and carriers isolated.

While Victoria’s testing rate has been slowly increasing (on Sunday, more than 40,000 were tested), testing centres are still rejecting people who don’t have clear symptoms, even if they were close contacts of someone who had tested positive.

Second, enact a more consistent lockdown than the bizarre concoction we currently have. That means no Bunnings, no Dan Murphy’s, no senior school kids, no building sites. Victoria’s lockdown rules seem to be based on who has the best lobbyists, rather than actual need.

China provided the blueprint for handling a second wave. Victoria chose to ignore it, and its economy and people are paying the price.

Don’t call me maybe

Another strange element of Victoria’s second wave has been the apparent inability to properly trace contacts of those testing positive. Despite recruiting more than 2000 contact tracers and support staff, Victoria currently has 2865 cases which are being “investigated”. The rest of Australia, combined, has three.

Dan Andrews claimed on Friday that up to “a quarter” of Victoria’s active COVID-19 cases and close contacts were not answering their phones, which was making the contact tracing process harder.

Perhaps someone could tell Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that it’s not 1985. A lot of people simply won’t answer their phone, especially to unknown numbers. Some fairly basic behavioural economics would suggest the way to resolve this issue isn’t to send in the army, or to just keep calling in the hope people pick up, but to change the approach.

DHHS could quite use SMS and Whatsapp to inform people that a close contact has COVID-19. They could even offer incentives for getting tested, perhaps a $25 Coles or Woolworths voucher. This would be far more efficient and effective than plugging away with a method which has been shown to be completely ineffectual.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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