Critics of Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdown have argued the rules are too strict, reaping benefits insufficient to justify the freedoms lost.
On September 1, 2020, during a speech in London, former prime minister Tony Abbott labelled Victoria a “health dictatorship” and called for restrictions to be eased to afford people more personal responsibility.
Abbott then said the Victorian government’s “extraordinary ineptitude” in managing its hotel quarantine system had produced the biggest outbreak in Australia so far, “responded to with the most severe lockdown tried anywhere in the world outside of Wuhan itself”.
So, barring Wuhan, China, is Victoria’s lockdown the toughest attempted anywhere in the world?
Abbott’s claim is wrong.
Many governments adopted individual policies similar to Victoria’s such as curfews and stay-home orders.
Some rules were even stricter. For example, Spain and Argentina banned outdoor exercise entirely while Israel limited walks to within 100 metres of home.
Meanwhile, Chile allowed only twice-weekly shop visits, and both South Africa and India banned the sale of alcohol.
And whereas New Zealand prohibited takeaway food and drinks, Victorians could at least still visit their local cafe to pick up a coffee.
According to a comparative “stringency index” developed by academics at Oxford University, 14 countries achieved the maximum possible score for the overall severity of their lockdowns.
While smaller jurisdictions such as Victoria are not included on the index, Fact Check has calculated that it would not have reached the maximum.
By Fact Check’s reckoning, 37 countries scored the same as or higher than Victoria at various times during the pandemic.
Of those, 21 had sustained those scores for longer than Victoria’s stage 4 lockdown when Abbott made his claim.
Abbott said Victoria responded to its second wave outbreak with the “most severe lockdown” tried outside Wuhan, where Chinese officials were reportedly seen welding residents’ front doors shut to contain the virus.
In response, the state government ordered residents in several hotspot Melbourne suburbs to stay home from July 1, before extending restrictions to all of Melbourne and regional Mitchell Shire from July 9.
Under stage 4 restrictions, residents could leave home only for work, exercise, buying essentials, or giving and receiving care.
Travel was limited to 5km from home unless absolutely necessary, exercise limited to one hour per day, and shop visits restricted to one person per household per day.
However, exercise could be done with one other person, and though home visits were banned, exceptions applied for “compassionate reasons” and visiting partners.
Even stricter rules applied between 8pm and 5am, during which time the only reasons to leave the house were work, caregiving or medical care.
Schools and childcare centres were closed to all but a few children, and many businesses were forced to close or reduce their staffing, with specific rules issued for each industry.
Still, retail stores remained open for “click and collect” services,while customers could still visit cafes and restaurants for takeaway food and coffee.
Locking down buildings
Abbott referred to the most severe lockdown tried anywhere in the world.
Arguably Victoria’s most severe measure was announced on July 4, when police surprised residents of nine public housing towers with an immediate lockdown “at all times” that, for some, would last two weeks.
Premier Daniel Andrews said the “complete” lockdown meant there would “be no reason for any of those residents to leave their home”.
Locking down individual buildings is not unique to Victoria, however. In Germany, local authorities quarantined 700 residents of an apartment block in the city of Göttingenfor a week while they were tested for COVID-19, sparking clashes with police.
Fact Check has considered India’s lockdown in more detail, further below.
On other measures, too, Melbourne’s stage 4 rules were not exceptional.
Exceptions for 24-hour stay-home orders varied between countries, but Victoria’s 5km limit for an hour of exercise was far from the strictest. In Israel, for example, walks were only permitted “for a short time” within 100 metres of home.
Similarly, Argentina banned outdoor exercise for more than a month, eventually allowing walks within a 500 metre limit.
Fact Check has also taken a closer look at Argentina’s restrictions, further below.
Some countries cracked down on what Victorians might consider “essential” items, which were still available in Melbourne even during stage 4.
New Zealand banned takeaway coffee and food, for example, unless from petrol stations.
Argentina also prohibited the face-to-face sale of takeaway, meaning cafe visits were not allowed.
And, when it came to grocery shopping, Victorians were at least permitted one visit per day.
The same couldn’t be said for Chile, where people in lockdown required permits to go out, and were only allowed two supermarket visits per week.
The full effect?
Fact Check has also examined data from the Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, published by Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, to assess the overall severity of restrictions tried around the world.
The tracker covers 185 countries and includes a “stringency index” that seeks to quantify the combined strictness of policies over time.
Toby Phillips, Head of Research and Policy with Digital Pathways at Oxford, told Fact Check the tracker relied on official government sources as a “first preference” but also sourced information from international media reports where these were unavailable.
The tracker awards each country an overall stringency score based on indicators for nine policy areas; for example, school closures, travel restrictions or stay-home requirements.
Each indicator receives a mark out of 100, with the results averaged to produce the final score.
Notably, these indicators reflect the most stringent policy adopted anywhere in the country. If a policy only applies to part of the country — for example, an individual state — the indicator is “weighted lower” when calculating the overall index score.
The tracker necessarily adopts a limited range of indicators and scores that capture the nuance of some countries’ restrictions better than others.
How would Victoria score?
While Abbott compared the rest of the world with Victoria, the tracker only gives a score to Australia as a whole.
Phillips said that if state-level data were assessed, “the Victoria-only score would be higher [than Australia’s] because there would be no downward adjustment to reflect non-lockdown states”.
At the time of Abbott’s claim, Australia’s highest score to-date was 79.2, recorded in August when Victoria implemented stage 4 restrictions. Before Victoria’s second outbreak, the peak for Australia was 73.2, recorded during April.
Fact Check has applied the tracker’s methodology to calculate a score for Victoria, finding its stage 4 restrictions would have scored 94.4.
This reflects maximum scores as follows:
- Closing all levels of schools;
- Forcing all non-essential workers to work from home;
- Cancelling public events;
- Restricting gatherings to 10 people or less;
- Requiring people to stay home, with minimal exceptions;
- Restricting movement within Melbourne and Victoria;
- Banning international travel
- Running a coordinated public information campaign.
The state did not achieve a maximum score for public transport restrictions as its operations were reduced but not shut down.
How does it compare?
Since Abbott compared Victoria’s lockdown to those “tried” anywhere in the world, Fact Check has analysed all scores since the start of the pandemic.
By September 1, the data shows, 31 countries had surpassed Victoria’s maximum, while another six countries had matched it.
Those 31 countries included New Zealand, with a score of 96.3, and 14 countries whose stringency scores reached 100 — the maximum possible.
Whose lasted longer?
Fact Check has also analysed the stringency data to show the duration of these lockdowns.
Before Abbott made his claim, Andrews said he expected stage 4 restrictions to last for at least six weeks.
At the time of Abbott’s claim, 21 countries had sustained their strictest measures for longer than Melbourne’s 31 days of stage 4 lockdown.
Duration of stay-home orders
Looking only at stay-home measures, many countries outlasted Victoria when it came to the tracker’s rating for “minimal exceptions” for going outside.
It shows Honduras had these restrictions in place for 159 days straight.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan spent a total of 103 days with strict stay-home rules, including stretches of 50 and 48 days.
By contrast, when Abbott made his claim, Melbourne’s toughest stage 4 restrictions had been in place for 31 days.
As noted, the tracker’s score for each country reflects the strictest measures in force anywhere in the territory.
While this score is adjusted when the geographic scope is limited, for example to a single state, the tracker does not show whether that was always the same part of the country over time.
For this reason, Fact Check has limited its comparison of the duration data to countries whose measures applied nationwide.
That means the numbers do not cover stay-home orders in particular regions or cities.
What happened in Argentina?
Argentina offers an example of how other countries imposed restrictions at least as severe as those in Victoria — and, in some cases, for much longer.
In March, the government ordered all Argentinians to remain at home for a period of “social, preventive and compulsory isolation”.
This meant residents could only leave the house for “minimal and essential trips” for food, medicines and cleaning supplies.
Shopping centres and non-essential businesses were closed, though some retailers continued to operate, such as suppliers of fuels and hardware.
While Melburnians could drive within their five kilometre limit, only exempted groups in Argentina could use the roads.
Schools and childcare centres were also closed.
Restaurants could offer takeaway services but, unlike in Melbourne, this was restricted to delivery only, with face-to-face services prohibited.
Notably, outdoor exercise was banned for the first five weeks of lockdown (March 20 to April 26). The rules were eventually adjusted to accommodate one-hour walks — but only between 8am and 8pm and within 500 metres of home.
At the time of Abbott’s claim, residents in the capital had remained under stay-home orders for 166 days in a row.
What happened in India?
India went into a nationwide lockdown on March 24 after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that “from midnight tonight, a complete ban is being imposed on people from stepping out of their homes”.
Police in the capital New Delhi explained that people were “required to stay home and come out only for basic needs within the vicinity of their residence”.
Under the national guidelines, all schools and non-essential businesses were forced to close or arrange for staff to work from home.
Food and grocery stores continued to operate, though the guidelines suggested district authorities could “encourage and facilitate home delivery to minimise the movement of individuals outside their homes”.
At the same time, “all transport services” were suspended by the national government, including travel by air, rail and metro, as well as interstate movement by road, with few exceptions. Private buses, taxis and rickshaws were also banned, the Delhi Police said.
Meanwhile, funerals could go ahead with strict 20 person limits, but all other gatherings were prohibited.
India’s government stipulated that states could not “dilute” the national rules but “could impose stricter measures” depending on local requirements. This saw local police arresting people for taking a walk or going for runs.
Later, when the lockdown was extended, the national government placed a strict ban on selling alcohol and tobacco.
As restrictions began to ease in some areas, the government instituted its system of containment zones for sealing off potential outbreaks. These could be virtually any size within a district, the government said, and allow “no movement of population in or out” except for essential services.
Principal researcher: David Campbell, with Sonam Thomas
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