The Victorian “pivot point” opens the way out of the blockade

The good news is that Victoria has already suppressed the spread of the virus to the point where, without another large-scale outbreak, the government is likely to step out of the state’s three-month lockdown and declare “COVID normal” on time the summer vacation.

While Mr Andrews has said that the steps to be taken on Sunday “will not be as big as we hoped,” he insists that they will be “significant” and are still being considered. Its language has changed to recognize the social costs of continued lockdown and the pain of ongoing restrictions on businesses and citizens. On Sunday, it is possible that the five-kilometer rule could be abolished and some restrictions on social gatherings relaxed.

Professor James McCaw, a Melbourne University epidemiologist who sits on Australia’s Main Committee on Health Protection, the national cabinet’s health advisory group, says action cannot come soon enough.

“Up until now, I have been concerned that we may find ourselves on an unconfirmed path to elimination which, in my epidemiological view, makes no sense or is justified,” said Professor McCaw. “The transition to a real, aggressive strategy of repression… is an incredibly welcome development.

“The earlier we start this process, the better. We have to do it slowly, we have to do it carefully, and we have to release the pressure in the system in a controlled manner. If we wait too long, it will explode. ”

Professor Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist whose modeling informed the government’s roadmap on COVID restrictions, says there was a clear “fulcrum” within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Police confront anti-lockdown protesters at the Chadstone Shopping Center, the site of Melbourne’s largest recent outbreak.Recognition:Paul Jeffers

“You’re letting go of the chance of elimination,” he said. “We do aggressive repression, and here we try to keep the numbers down. Ten is the new five is basically a shift from elimination to living with the virus.

“It has to be confusing on the outside because people don’t use words like elimination, but it’s pretty clear what is happening.”

That shift came this week when Mr Andrews abandoned the stated goal of a 14-day average of five cases per day or less, which is required to move on to the next step in the lifting of restrictions, suggesting that it may be unrealistic is to expect fewer than 10 cases per day.

Most epidemiologists define elimination as no new COVID cases recorded for a virus life cycle, which is usually measured after 14 or 21 days. Although this milestone has been reached in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, it is not the aim of the national cabinet, which aims not to have community broadcasts in all states and territories.

Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely says Victoria’s public health response has turned away from elimination.

Mr Andrews has repeatedly denied that Victoria has an elimination strategy. In documents submitted to Parliament over the weekend in support of an extension of the state of emergency in Victoria, the Andrews administration confirmed that its “aggressive repression” measures are in line with the national strategic objective.

Definitions aside, Victoria’s obvious rethinking of its strategy should ease tensions with the federal government, concerned that Australia’s second largest city is in a socially and economically devastating blockade.

It will also ease the public frustration of enduring some of the world’s toughest COVID restrictions when the daily case numbers have dropped below NSW’s in the past few days.

Professor McCaw said the Victorians had followed public health guidelines, but this must continue while observing social distancing and the use of masks.

“One of the most important things we need is for the Victorian community to maintain their trust in their leadership,” he said. “We have some people who argue that we are staying incarcerated, which puts the government in danger of losing community support, and we have people who argue that the measures should be completely relaxed, which would also be very risky.

“In between lies a safe, navigable path that the government is moving on. ”

Federal Health Secretary Greg Hunt said Wednesday that the average rate of new infections in Victoria is now below the Australian Main Health Committee’s definition of a COVID hotspot, clearing the way for the state to follow NSW’s path out of lockdown. Between July 18 and August 13, NSW treated an average of 15 new cases per day without causing another epidemic. Melbourne’s 14-day average is now 9.6.

The consensus among senior government officials and public health experts is that although the contact tracing in Victoria was overwhelmed at the height of the second wave epidemic, it has improved significantly in the past two months and can be trusted to continue Outbreaks responded and controlled.

De-tensioning: Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Secretary Greg Hunt.
Relieving Tensions: Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Secretary Greg Hunt.Recognition:Alex Ellinghausen

“We should have more confidence in our systems after they’re rebuilt, and those systems are releasing us from the need for a strict lockdown,” said Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett.

Victoria’s roadmap, released by the Andrews administration on September 6, called for the 14-day national case average to drop to five and the average to zero for the final step toward a “COVID normal”. At the time, several senior epidemiologists said the targets were unrealistic.

In the last few weeks the signs along the road map have changed frequently.

Professor McCaw said when the roadmap was first published, the thresholds were inaccessible and unnecessary. Since then, he has reported regularly to the Australian Main Committee on Health Protection on Victoria’s progress towards these goals.

About three weeks ago there was a “short period of time” when it looked like Victoria had a 50:50 chance of achieving her goals. Those chances have fallen since the Chadstone Mall eruption, related to 43 cases so far, including eight in regional Victoria.

Dr. Stephen Duckett, a health economist at the Grattan Institute, said public fatigue from COVID restrictions was increasing. “They have been going on for a long time and people are getting tired of them,” he said. “One of the things you need to consider is social license to do these things. ”

He has previously argued that neither the curfew nor the five-kilometer rule were evidence-based, but believes that focusing on thresholds for the purpose of the street map, rather than data, is the right approach.

Professor Bennett said the public discussion about lifting restrictions had become unnecessarily polarized. This partially reflected the government’s decision to shape the debate against the risk of a third wave of infections.

She cited modeling by the Burnet Institute, commissioned by the government last month, that simulated the risk of another epidemic if Victorian went straight from level four of lockdown to the lowest level of COVID restrictions.

Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University.
Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University. Recognition:Jason South

The government called for this scenario to be modeled, although no one in the government thought about such a political leap. The result was an epidemiological straw man – a 41 percent risk of Victoria plunging into a devastating third wave.

“Why would you do this?” Asked Professor Burnett.

“What worries me most is polarization. You either completely undermine the restrictions or are completely locked down, and you cannot find a middle ground trying to convey messages to the government and the people about where we are and what confidence we could and should have in our systems.

“The only thing that gets people back on track to have a meaningful conversation that will help everyone find their way out is when people start trusting the information again.”

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Chip Le Grand is the main reporter for The Age. He writes on crime, sports and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.

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