(Image: AAP/James Ross)

October 19 likely won’t bring sweeping changes to Melbourne’s strict lockdown restrictions, as the city’s 14-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases slightly increased (by 0.6) to 9.9.

Melbourne’s third step out of lockdown has no restrictions on leaving home, permits all retail to reopen, and allows public gatherings of up to 10 people. But to get there the 14-day case average must drop to less than five per day, with less than five cases with an unknown source in the last 14 days statewide. That is the current Andrews government rule.

This morning, the city recorded 15 new cases with no fatalities. Victoria’s state of emergency has been extended until November 8.

It’s a bad sign for a city which has been in lockdown for months, crippling the economy and putting a strain on residents’ mental health. 

With cases stubbornly staying in the double digits, is there any light at the end of the tunnel for Melbourne? 

Strict rules angering locals 

Many have criticised the state government’s approach, arguing the rules are too strict.

Hundreds of doctors have signed an open letter calling for an end to the restrictions, saying they are “disproportionate and unscientific”. The validity of Victoria’s lockdown is expected to be challenged in the High Court by hospitality figure Julian Gerner. And this morning, Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles stepped down from his role — the second high-profile figure to resign following the state’s hotel quarantine inquiry.

In his resignation statement, Eccles said remaining in the role would be a “significant distraction to the ongoing work of the Victorian public sector”. He repeated that neither he nor the Department of Premier and Cabinet made a decision to use private security in quarantine hotels.

It’s about the narrative, not the numbers

Deakin University chair in epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett told Crikey the roadmap needed to focus more on the narrative — the way people were getting infected — than the numbers. She believes waiting for a five-day average is too restrictive. 

“We’ve had households which have contributed to a number of cases … but the number of cases under investigation or not immediately linked to a known outbreak, that number is very low. That’s the number we need to worry about,” she said. 

Victoria recently ramped up its contact tracing efforts, investing in software and notifying more people with a connection to a positive case to go into isolation. 

Bennett said even without these additional measures, the previous modelling has shown if Melbourne moved to the next step with the current numbers, the risk of seeing cases rise would still be under 20%.

“We’re not going to reach that number by the weekend … [But] if we’re not finding a lot of cases that are complex and more community-wide then we’re in a strong position and we should feel confident that we can take that next step.”

Patience is key

Ben Phillips, associate professor at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, told Crikey that patience is key to tackling case numbers. 

“The goals are reachable. It’s a matter of how much time and patience people have,” he said.

Phillips isn’t certain changing Melbourne’s roadmap goals is the best idea, stressing a capable contacting tracing and isolation rules is the most important part of tackling the pandemic. 

“Clearly what’s happening is working. It’s quite a painful process, but it is working.” 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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