Melbourne looks like it will begin to move out of lockdown and a new phase of COVID management will begin.
COVID in Melbourne has now reached the point where it is hard to get community infections down much further in the immediate future.
Daylesford and Hepburn Springs are attractive places to visit. Opening up will be good for the local economy but there will be greater risks of local infection as Melbournians begin to travel again. It will be important that Victoria gets it right this time to prevent a third wave.
The Victorian Government’s lockdown targets for Melbourne are extremely ambitious – aimed more at eliminating COVID rather than suppressing and managing it.
New daily cases are now in single figures, but elimination is almost impossible while there are still well over a 100 active cases in total, mainly from aged and health care. It is difficult to stop the spread from workers to their families and back out into the community because infections are often mild or asymptomatic.
The World Health Organisation has done a backflip on lockdowns. It now argues they should only be used as a last resort to get treatment, testing contact tracing and isolation in place. WHO believes lockdowns do too much economic and social damage to people on low incomes and other vulnerable groups to be justified.
Elimination would be best, but the Victorian Government has run out of time. It has become harder and harder to argue that millions of people and thousands of businesses have to be locked down when the daily infection rate is so low in Victoria – not helped by bickering and sniping between the Commonwealth and the State.
The community transmission rate should now be low enough to manage outbreaks effectively. It is almost certain Melbourne will start to come out of lockdown next week with an ongoing, low rate of community transmission.
But COVID is very infectious, and as Chadstone, Kilmore and Shepparton show, outbreaks are very difficult to prevent. More local outbreaks are likely in the future.
Effective outbreak management will be critical to prevent widespread transmission. That means rapid and comprehensive local testing and isolation of anyone who tests positive or has had contact with people who are likely to be infected.
Restrictions will need to be put in place rapidly where infections occur in hotspot local communities, workplaces, schools and other organisations. It will be critical that aged care services prevent infections and that if any do occur, they are managed effectively.
The Victorian health and aged care systems are much better prepared now than they were when the lockdown started.
But government action is not going to be enough. Personal hygiene, social distancing, getting tested when you have symptoms and mask wearing are the key to preventing infections. In the absence of tight restrictions, Victorians will need to take more personal responsibility for preventing infection than they have done so far.
In particular, people at risk will need to take extra precautions to avoid settings and people where COVID is more likely to be transmitted, like indoor restaurants and cafes and crowded shops or workplaces. Effective prevention in aged care services will be critical.
Locally, the Hepburn Shire has taken action to promote a COVID safe reopening. The Shire is providing advice and support for the community and businesses to prevent and manage COVID.
The new normal for COVID is likely to see a controlled reopening of economic and social life with a combination of personal responsibility to prevent infection and manage risk, and rapid government action to manage local outbreaks when they occur.
A number of countries, including the Scandinavians, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, have done this successfully over an extended period and kept COVID down while remaining relatively open.
New South Wales is the local example. Victoria should be able to do the same. The Shepparton outbreak will be a test case to watch.