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The state government has abandoned its COVID-zero strategy and is set to announce a modest easing of restrictions despite two COVID-19 deaths being reported on Tuesday – the first deaths in Victoria this year.
Conceding the mental health impacts of the latest lockdown had been “bloody tough”, Premier Daniel Andrews was locked with senior ministers in briefings with Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton on Tuesday evening.
They were thrashing out which restrictions to ease later this week and how to plot a path to a fuller reopening once Victoria hit the national vaccination target of 80 per cent.
The developments came as Victoria recorded its first COVID-19 deaths since November 30. Two women, one aged 49 from Northcote and the other in her 60s from Hume, died in their homes.
The state recorded 76 new cases on Tuesday and Mr Andrews said he understood Victoria could not continue its lockdown endlessly.
“I know that as strong as tough and as resilient as the people of Victoria are, we’re all tired,” he said.
Epidemiologists have warned Victoria is unlikely to ever achieve COVID-zero given the transmissibility of the Delta variant, but said daily community transmission cases must remain below 100 and ideally only “a few dozen a day”.
Schools will not be allowed to reopen under the latest plan, but the Mr Andrews said he would outline a plan on Wednesday for senior students to return to the classroom.
Senior government sources previously told The Age ministers should consider reopening playgrounds and allowing Year 12 students back into the classroom as any hope of extinguishing the current Delta outbreak was looking highly unlikely.
Deakin University Chair in Epidemiology Catherine Bennett predicted the first restrictions to be eased would be less risky measures, like lifting the curfew and allowing people more time to exercise outdoors. In the coming weeks, she anticipated a soft opening for some businesses that might allow some people to sit outdoors at cafes.
Although the Victorian government has officially shifted its tough stance on eliminating the virus, Mr Andrews on Tuesday stressed the aim remained to drive case numbers as low as possible and “close to zero” to ensure the state’s hospitals were not overwhelmed.
“This is bloody tough, no one is pretending otherwise,” Mr Andrews said.
“[On Wednesday], we’ll announce thresholds, low numbers we think we can contain. We’ll always push to get as low as we possibly can, but if, despite our best efforts, zero is not something that we can achieve, I make two points: it can’t be much more than zero and secondly, we are better off for having chased zero, otherwise it finishes up thousands of cases.”
Professor Sutton and his public health team spent Tuesday afternoon finalising the road map for COVID-19 restrictions until Victoria hits its vaccination targets and determining the “sweet spot” of tolerable case thresholds that need to be reached before an easing of lockdown rules.
The government’s eight senior ministers, including the Premier, met on Tuesday night to decide on the settings. The wider cabinet is expected to sign off on the new rules and path to reopening on Wednesday morning.
In NSW, the government has already promised to allow fully vaccinated people living outside of areas of concern to meet with up to four other people from other households outdoors. Those living in hotspot areas will be able to gather outdoors for recreation, as well as exercise.
James McCaw, an epidemiologist and mathematical biologist with the University of Melbourne, who provided modelling on the pandemic to the federal government, said it was impossible to determine a magic number that would be achievable to maintain long-term.
However, to manage the epidemic of cases effectively, Professor McCaw said Victoria could not go beyond a threshold of 100 cases a day.
“We need measures that keep the daily case counts to no more than 50 to 100 per day ideally,” he said.
“If case counts go higher – so in the 200-300 per day – it makes future response to the pandemic more difficult, and it will put us in a very difficult position where we would never be extremely high.”
Without wanting to speculate on the easing of restrictions preempted by Mr Andrews, Professor McCaw said there was scope for “minor or small changes to be made to the current restrictions, which are both warranted and will be of huge benefit”.
Epidemiologist Nancy Baxter said Victoria should be aiming for as low as it can go within a double-digit threshold and argued that 50 or 100 new daily cases was still far too high.
Victoria had roughly 40 new cases who were infectious in the community, a figure Professor Baxter said was very concerning.
Professor Baxter said NSW was only reporting 78 cases day at the end of July, which exploded to more than 1000 daily cases in five weeks.
Asked about what restrictions that government could safely ease, Professor Baxter said allowing people to exercise for longer outdoors and slightly increasing the five-kilometre radius could be done without the risk of a huge surge in cases.
However, she suspected the government may also opt to allow families back into playgrounds.
“It is more risky, but from a mental health perspective it is something that’s quite important.”
The Premier would not be drawn on which restrictions would be eased, but stressed Wednesday would not be “Freedom Day” and that any easing of the rules would be modest and cautious.
“It will not be an opening up type of day,” Mr Andrews said.
“It’ll be modest changes that hopefully can be meaningful in people’s lives. As much economic activity as is possible, but they will be very modest changes because there is no middle ground here – it’s either very low numbers or very, very high numbers until we get people vaccinated.”
Last week, Mr Andrews said he did not favour an idea put forward by University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely to move to a lighter lockdown with slightly more freedoms in acknowledgement of the difficulty of reaching zero.
Under Professor Blakely’s suggestion, strict rules would remain, but more time would be allowed outside, the travel limit would become 10 kilometres, some retail could open and essential sectors like construction could return to greater operating capacity.
His modelling on the proposal estimates cases would rise to about 400 a day, but vaccine coverage would curtail the spike by mid-October.
However, as Victoria struggles to crush the latest Delta outbreak, despite entering into a tough lockdown at the earliest possible time, government MPs have increasingly turned their attention to tweaking the harsh restrictions to ease the mental burden on Victorians who have endured more than 200 days in lockdown.
Of today’s 76 new COVID-19 cases, 45 are linked to existing outbreaks, and 36 were in isolation for their entire infectious period.
Seventeen are connected to the MyCentre childcare facility in Broadmeadows, nine to the Shepparton cluster, three to Millers Junction Shopping Centre in Altona North, one to Learning Sanctuary in Spotswood, one to the St Kilda East engagement party cluster, one to Al Taqwa College, one to a retail centre in Fisherman’s Bend, and 11 are linked to existing clusters which remain a mystery.
“The message is clear because the message is true and the message is critical,” Professor Sutton said.
“You really need to follow the rules, not just because their rules, but it is the way to protect yourself and to protect those that you love … COVID seeks out all of those gaps – the unvaccinated individuals, the individuals who are not doing the right thing, the individuals who get in touch with others unnecessarily and provides an opportunity for transmission.”
The Darebin woman is believed to be a 49-year-old from Northcote.
A spokeswoman from Ambulance Victoria confirmed paramedics were called to the home about 1.30am. Paramedics returned about 7am for another patient, who was taken to the Royal Melbourne Hospital in a stable condition.
Professor Bennett said while the goal should be to keep new infections in the double digits, even chasing a daily figure of 20 new cases per day would probably be unachievable in the long term.
“It’s about trying to keep a lid on it, keep the cases numbers where they are or even less,” she said.
She predicted the numbers would continue to “bounce around” in the coming months, but the most critical aspect was keeping the reproduction number, the rate the average number of people each infected person passes the virus onto, to below one.
With Rachel Eddie
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