daniel andrews putting on a mask
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/James Ross)

It’s official: from midnight tonight, Victoria can get “back on the beers”.

After 12 long weeks in lockdown, relief is washing over Melbourne. But with that relief comes the anxiety of a city that’s opened up once before, only to end up back in isolation due to failures and mishaps. 

Just as the unpredictable nature of the virus and an element of Australia’s hotel quarantine system triggered months of economic, social and psychological pain, experts are now trying to work out if there are other vulnerabilities that could let the virus loose again.

It’s the last thing that anyone in Melbourne wants to contemplate, as the city celebrates the end of one of the most challenging lockdowns in the world. But there can be no certainty about where things will be in a few months’ time, as Stephen Duckett, health director at the Grattan Institute and former secretary of the federal health department, has pointed out.

One of the biggest vulnerabilities is in hospitals, epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre told Crikey, pointing to the fact that the latest outbreak in Melbourne’s northern suburbs stemmed from a worker at Box Hill Hospital in Melbourne’s east. 

“We really need to look at the big picture and for me it’s where did this originate — a hospital,” MacIntyre said.

Since the pandemic began, more than 3500 Victorian healthcare workers have been infected with the virus, a number MacIntyre said was high compared to other similar jurisdictions. 

But Premier Daniel Andrews played down the risk of further hospital outbreaks on Monday, saying fewer COVID-19 patients would mean fewer outbreaks among staff. 

“Where an outbreak starts is one thing, where it travels is another thing,” he said. 

MacIntyre said Victoria’s ability to get on top of outbreaks was still dependent on a well-resourced public health system, and that the state’s system was still recovering from years of funding cuts.

“Going into the pandemic, the Victorian health system was decimated. It was the poorest, most impoverished system in the country,” she said.

“If you don’t have the public health capacity and skills to manage an outbreak, including contract tracing, you will be vulnerable.”

Duckett told Crikey Victoria had suffered significant cuts to public health funding under both Liberal and Labor governments over the last decade — including by the Andrews government — and was still spending far less on public health than NSW and Queensland.

He said this was because finding money for things like elective surgery waiting lists was seen as more important than the invisible “back office” work of public health. “The public now realises that these are so important.”

Victoria allocated $0.6 billion to public health in its 2018/19 budget, compared to $1.6 billion in NSW and $2.3 billion in Queensland.

Andrews said on Monday that the state’s ability to reach zero new cases was testament to changes that had been made to beef up the state’s contact tracing system. But he resisted taking full responsibility for new outbreaks emerging. 

“The contact tracing is absolutely effective and these numbers show that,” he said. “But we all have to play our part.”

How do you think the Victorian government handled the second wave? Does the state need to increase public health funding? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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