(Image: RMIT ABC Fact Check)

The claim

Victoria’s “roadmap for reopening” from coronavirus lockdown has not been well received by the federal government.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the plan as “crushing news”, saying he hoped Victoria’s trigger points for easing restrictions were a worst-case scenario.

“What I can’t help but be struck by is that under the thresholds that have been set in that plan Sydney would be under curfew now,” Morrison said.

“Sydney doesn’t need to be under curfew now. They have a tracing capability that can deal with outbreaks.”

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So, when Morrison made his claim, were case numbers in NSW higher than the Victorian curfew threshold? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Yes, NSW case numbers were higher than the Victorian triggers for removing the curfew, but there’s more to it than Morrison’s claim suggests.

Under Victoria’s roadmap, two criteria must be met for the removal of Victoria’s curfew: a state-wide daily average of fewer than five cases over two weeks; and fewer than five cases in total with an unknown source over a two week period.

In both raw and population-adjusted terms, NSW’s coronavirus numbers do not meet these criteria.

Even when netting out hotel quarantine cases from NSW’s figures, the state still does not fall under the threshold.

However, linking the number of NSW cases and its contact tracing capability to the Victorian roadmap is problematic.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced Victoria’s stage four coronavirus lockdown — including the introduction of a curfew — on August 2, as the state recorded 354 new cases. Two days later, on August 4, case numbers in Victoria peaked at 686.

Case numbers in NSW have been far lower. After an initial surge beginning in March was brought under control, daily cases peaked at just 22 on August 10.

As Victoria’s Department of Health points out, Victoria’s thresholds for easing restrictions are not the same as the thresholds for reintroducing restrictions.

And as one expert contacted by Fact Check noted, stronger measures might be needed coming out of lockdown than during “maintenance phase”.

What is the road map?

On September 6, Premier Daniel Andrews released his much anticipated “roadmap for reopening“, setting out five steps to reach “COVID normal”.

There were some differences between Melbourne, where a curfew had been imposed on August 2, and regional Victoria.

Apart from the first step — which applies automatically from September 13 — these steps require “trigger points” before they can be enacted.

For example, to move to the second step, metropolitan Melbourne must reach an average daily case rate of between 30 and 50 cases by September 28, recorded over the previous two weeks.

Under this second step Melbourne’s curfew would remain in place, preventing people from being out of their homes between 9pm and 5am.

According to the roadmap, the curfew would not be removed until the third step is reached.

Testing the claim

Morrison said under the trigger thresholds set in Melbourne’s roadmap, “Sydney would be under curfew now”.

Put another way, Morrison was effectively suggesting that Sydney had not achieved the trigger threshold needed to move from the second step to the “no curfew” third step.

As noted, to move to the third step, two conditions must be met:

  • A state-wide daily average of fewer than five cases over two weeks; and
  • Fewer than five cases in total with an unknown source over a two week period.

Morrison made his claim during a September 7 media conference.

Case number data for New South Wales have been sourced from daily coronavirus statistics media releases published by the NSW Department of Health.

The department keeps a running tally, including recording the number of locally acquired cases with “contact not identified”, and the number of returned travellers placed in hotel quarantine.

Coronavirus cases in NSW compared to Victoria

Victoria experienced very few cases during Australia’s so-called first coronavirus wave in March and April, but a surge from late June.

Andrews announced Victoria’s stage four coronavirus lockdown — including the introduction of a curfew in Melbourne — on August 2.

On that day, Victoria recorded 354 cases in the 24 hours to 8pm. The state’s tally of daily cases peaked at 686 on August 4.

NSW, on the other hand, largely staved off a second surge, with case numbers peaking at just 22 on August 10.

It’s worth noting that since Morrison made his claim, NSW’s numbers have been generally lower than the two weeks leading to his press conference.

However, Fact Check always tests claims with the data that was available at the time of the claim.

Did NSW meet Victoria’s trigger threshold for no curfew?  

Over the two weeks prior to Morrison’s media conference, NSW recorded a daily average of 9.2 cases, with the number of cases rising as high as 16 cases on September 1, and as low as three cases on August 23 and August 24.

This is well above the first of Victoria’s trigger thresholds, requiring a state-wide daily average of fewer than five cases over two weeks.

Over the same two weeks, the number of cases with no known source in NSW increased by eight.

This was also well above the second of the two thresholds, requiring fewer than five cases in total from unknown sources over a two week period.

What about hotel quarantine?

Victoria’s roadmap is not explicit about whether returned travellers placed in hotel quarantine would be excluded in average daily figures when determining if the threshold for stage three has been reached.

Victoria is currently not receiving any returned travellers, although NSW has been.

A spokeswoman for Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services told Fact Check in an email the daily average thresholds needed to move to step three would exclude returned travellers placed in hotel quarantine.

Excluding returned travellers, NSW recorded a daily average of 7.4 new cases over the 14 days prior to Morrison’s press conference. This is still above the threshold needed to remove the curfew under Victoria’s roadmap.

Adjusting for population size

NSW’s population is about 22% larger than Victoria’s. It accounts for about 32% of Australia’s population, compared to about 26% for Victoria. That means case numbers do not have the same impact across the two states.

To adjust for this, Fact Check converted Victoria’s trigger points into a rate per million people.

These rates can then be applied to case number rates in NSW.

For example, under Victoria’s roadmap, the state must have a daily average of less than 0.75 cases per million people, over 14 days to reach the third step.

Over the 14 days leading up to Morrison’s press conference, NSW recorded a daily average of 1.1 cases per million people.

Excluding returned travellers, NSW recorded a daily average of 0.91 cases per million, which is again above the threshold for stage three.

In NSW, there were eight unexplained cases in the two weeks prior to Morrison’s press conference.

That converts to a rate of 0.98 cases per million people. Again, this is above Victoria’s threshold to move from the second to the third step.

What Victoria’s health department says

A spokeswoman for Victoria’s Department of Health said the thresholds for easing restrictions are not the same as the threshold for reintroducing restrictions, meaning “a comparison with Sydney is not meaningful”.

“If Victoria returned to Sydney’s levels after reaching the thresholds in the roadmap we would not necessarily return to stage three or four restrictions on that basis,” the spokeswoman said.

“Those decisions would need to be made at that time as case numbers or thresholds need to be interpreted in the broader context of the local epidemiology at that time.”

What the experts say

Deakin University chair of epidemiology Catherine Bennett said Morrison was correct, and that Victoria’s coronavirus modelling appeared to have generated unduly conservative trigger points.

Bennett said as numbers fell, contact tracing and testing became increasingly effective tools to contain the virus. Bennett said there was little difference in the risk of an outbreak between five and 10 cases.

“The question is whether you need fewer than five cases to move to that next step,” Bennett told Fact Check.

“If you go from five to 10 cases, there is an only marginal shift in risk.”

She said Victoria’s lockdown “gives us an incredible advantage”.

“We in Victoria in fact have another two weeks to work on these last cases in a way that the NSW health department would probably love.”

Emma McBryde, professor of infectious diseases modelling and epidemiology at James Cook University, said the conclusion that Sydney would not qualify for the no-curfew third step as defined under Victoria’s roadmap was correct.

But McBryde said there were probably valid reasons for differentiating between the two jurisdictions.

“Coming out of lockdown Victoria may need stronger measures than the maintenance phase (i.e. NSW) for no other reason than to ensure we don’t oscillate between lockdown and release too frequently and cause social distress,” McBryde told Fact Check in an email.

“Part of the reason for requiring such stringent thresholds may be that Victoria has failed from this point before and there are reasons for that based on the capacity of public health response. Furthermore, not all of the lockdown measures are rational and evidence-based.”

McBryde said there was good evidence that outdoor activity poses very low risk, with the notable exception of large chanting or singing crowds.

She said there was “no evidence that I am aware of for curfew and minimal rational evidence for arbitrary limits on movement per se”.

Melbourne University’s Dallas English, chair of epidemiology and biostats at the Melbourne School Of Population And Global Health, said “on the numbers” Morrison was right.

English said case numbers had been steadily decreasing by an average of 7% per day since the peak on August 5. But he suggested it would be difficult to achieve Victoria’s thresholds.

“We know NSW has been very successful, but they do have cases bubbling along,” he said.

Principal researcher: Josh Gordon, economics and finance editor