Melbourne must record days of no community cases before lockdown lifts

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Melburnians will have to achieve consecutive days with all new coronavirus cases in isolation for their entire infectious period before lockdown is lifted, though people in regional Victoria can celebrate their freedom from Tuesday.

Premier Daniel Andrews said on Monday that the most important trigger to lift stage four restrictions would be the number of new cases who had been infectious in the community. Prominent epidemiologists say the public health team will also be focused on exposure sites, high testing rates and wastewater detection.

Premier Daniel Andrews announced lockdown would be lifted in regional Victoria from 11.59pm on Monday. Credit:Paul Jeffers

“We’re still chasing [these outbreaks] very hard,” Mr Andrews said. “We’re not out in front of this yet, I think we’re running alongside it, but we’re not yet in front of this particular outbreak.”

Victoria recorded 11 new cases on Monday, all linked to the Hobsons Bay and Maribyrnong outbreaks but only one of them was in quarantine during their infectious period.

NSW reported 283 new local COVID-19 cases on Monday with at least 106 in the community during their infectious period. A woman in her 90s from northern Sydney became the 29th death linked to the outbreak.

The state’s Northern Rivers region, which includes Byron Bay, is in a seven-day lockdown after a man infected with COVID-19 spent time in the area. Tamworth also entered a seven-day lockdown on Monday after a positive case visited the area.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely welcomed the Victorian government’s decision to lift regional restrictions from 11.59pm on Monday.

Professor Blakely said one of the challenges of locking down regional Victoria, where there have been no cases, was that governments would be “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”. He also pinpointed what would be needed for the sixth lockdown to be lifted.

“Victoria needs to get to … two to three days of zero cases of COVID-positive people in the community for any part of their infectious period,” Professor Blakely said.

The Premier is on the same wavelength. “We need to get down to a very low number of cases, if any, that have been out in the community during their infectious period,” Mr Andrews said. “That’s when we’ll have the best chance of opening up and staying open.”

The head of Monash University’s epidemiology team, James Trauer, said Victoria’s rapid return to lockdown last week showed the government had not managed the exit from the last one correctly.

Associate Professor Trauer said a more gradual release out of this lockdown should include holding off on non-essential retail and possibly the “higher risk” sector of hospitality, “though I know how much hospitality is hurting”.

“It may be that we should hold on for a few more days with our lockdown than may appear necessary to give ourselves that guarantee the virus is eliminated,” he said.

Burnet Institute infectious diseases expert Suman Majumdar said health authorities would be aiming for no new mystery cases, high testing rates and no positive sewage tests in areas where the virus is not known to be.

Victorian authorities are urging anyone with symptoms to get tested. Credit:Wayne Taylor

“Perhaps the most worrying element is the unknown initiation,” he said. “Establishing those links will be key.”

Regional businesses said the end of lockdown would deliver a crucial economic lifeline but pointed out that many operators, particularly those in tourism, relied on customers from Melbourne.

Mr Andrews warned Melburnians against rushing to regional Victoria with police monitoring the roads in the absence of the ring of steel that fenced in city dwellers last year.

“Don’t break the rules,” he said. “Don’t try and hit regional Victoria unless you are entitled to and eligible.”

Seven of Monday’s 11 cases are linked with the Caroline Springs Square Shopping Centre, with health authorities now urging everyone who was there between July 27 and August 5 to come forward, get tested and isolate until they receive a negative result.

There are two cases linked to the Newport Football Club, a young child who is a household member of a family in Newport, and a student at Al-Taqwa college.

Inverloch Esplanade Hotel owner Dylan Clark welcomed the end of lockdown, saying the 100-patron capacity limit for regional Victoria would allow his business to remain viable.

But he said the business was awaiting the return of Melburnians, who make up a large portion of his customers.

Alpine resort visitor numbers have been better this year than in 2020 when the ski season was all but obliterated by the pandemic.Credit:Getty

The ring of steel’s absence would also put more pressure on staff and some customers would feel like they’re being interrogated, he said.

“It means now we’ve really got to be strict on checking IDs when people visit our venue,” he said. “It’s an extra job our staff aren’t paid for.”

City of Greater Geelong mayor Stephanie Asher said while the lifting of lockdown was good news for regional Victoria, many businesses relied on visitation from Melbourne.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said regional Victoria should never have been included in the lockdown, and suggested the Mornington Peninsula, parts of the Yarra Valley such as Warburton and south-eastern satellite suburbs such as Bunyip, should be considered part of the regions.

“There are too many kids who aren’t in school who could be back in school if the government just listened,” he said. “Have some compassion for these kids … have some compassion for the small businesses who just want to be able to safely open.”

The alpine resorts are preparing for a rush of visitors with the requirement for a negative COVID result within 72 hours of arrival now scrapped.

A Falls Creek Resort Management spokeswoman said visitor numbers this year were far better than 2020 when the ski season was all but obliterated.

“We’re already receiving phone calls with regional Victorians organising to come back up,” she said.

Lamaro’s Hotel in South Melbourne was hit with a $10,000 fine on Monday for trading past the 8pm COVID lockdown cut-off last Thursday.

The pub’s owner, former AFL player, Paul Dimattina, said a few friends were in the hotel having a drink with him and consoling him in the face of yet another lockdown.

And a Melbourne man has faced court accused of assaulting a police officer by pushing them during an anti-lockdown protest last week.

Adam Richards, 48, from Southbank, appeared via video link in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Monday afternoon.

With Michael Fowler, Paul Sakkal, Simone Fox Koob and Cassandra Morgan

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