man on tram wearing face mask
(Image: SOPA Images/Sipa USA/Diego Fedele)

Melburnians have experienced their first taste of freedom. Shaggy locals can get their hair cut; joggers can go for as many runs as they like; up to 10 people from two households can meet outdoors for a picnic or to play tennis; and two guests can visit at home in regional Victoria. 

After more than 100 days of one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, it’s a breath of fresh air. But the new rules have left epidemiologists divided, with some arguing there’s no evidence to support the slow-moving easing of restrictions. 

Epidemiologists divided

In an opinion piece in The Age yesterday, three public health experts criticised Melbourne’s slow response, arguing there was no logic behind the radius bubble.

University of Sydney public health Emeritus Professor Bruce Armstrong told Crikey the Victorian approach was overly cautious. 

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“They’ve got to the position where the system is performing well and they should be able to maintain [low case numbers] providing there are no massive mistakes,” he said.

Meanwhile, University of South Australia biostatistics Professor Adrian Esterman told Crikey the approach was the right one to take: “Other epidemiologists have not agreed with me … But they’ve taken a very sensible approach and it’s worked. Why risk that?” 

There’s no evidence for anything, actually 

Monash University medicine Professor Paul Komesaroff told Crikey there was little evidence to support the 25km radius bubble.

“There’s nothing convincing one way or the other,” he said. 

But that sentiment isn’t limited to travel bubbles — evidence for most COVID-19 social measures is scant.

“You’d have to devise a study with two different populations and compare the rate of propagation,” Komesaroff said. “Collecting data for anything like that is very difficult, governments have to depend on rational arguments or inferences … The rules are based on value judgements.” 

Victoria’s success in curbing COVID-19’s spread isn’t down to one factor or another, but the effect of all of them. Komesaroff likened the easing of restrictions to moving off medication — a doctor would reduce the dose rather than take the patient off a drug altogether, to help moderate variables. 

“Whether an individual element of the response package had efficacy, or whether it as a whole was effective … no one knows and I would say no one will ever know,” he said. 

“The question is not how variable are factors A, B or C, but how prudently do we adjust a complex system.”

How does Victoria compare to the rest of the world? 

Melbourne’s lockdown has been called one of the harshest in the world.

While the city’s targets may be stricter than most, the roadmap looks pretty similar to a lot of other countries. 

Travel radiuses have previously been implemented in Europe. Italians weren’t allowed to travel between regions when lockdowns were eased in May, while French citizens were limited to a 100km bubble. 

Outdoor gatherings have slowly been allowed in Hong Kong, with groups of four allowed to meet outdoors, and weddings limited to 20 attendees — though there’s no food or drink allowed. 

South Korea has similarly barred sit-down dining at cafes, bakeries and ice cream parlours, while also limiting outdoor gatherings to 100 people. 

Curfews aren’t uncommon either, with the UK and France implementing night time movement restrictions amid a second wave. 

Komesaroff said comparing Australia’s restrictions to case numbers showed how well the country was faring. 

“Was the response appropriate or inappropriately rigorous? Well, it was a genuine emergency and serious disaster,” he said. 

“The overwhelming consensus in the medical community is we won’t get another chance at this, and the government’s strategy of dealing with it forcefully has been the appropriate one.”