Experts predict thousands of cases by October as lockdown drags on

Experts predict thousands of cases by October as lockdown drags on

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Victoria will remain in some form of lockdown until rates of full vaccination reach 70 per cent after the state recorded 120 fresh cases on Wednesday, with warnings that cases could peak at 2000 a day next month.

The state government announced that a slight easing of rules could happen by September 23, including allowing Victorians to travel 10 kilometres from their homes for exercise and essential shopping, exercise outdoors for up to three hours per day, and have personal training sessions with one other person.

The only restriction to ease sooner will be the reopening of children’s playgrounds on Friday, dashing hopes that Melbourne’s curfew and the statewide five-kilometre travel restriction would be scrapped this week.

Business groups derided what they called the lack of ambition in plans to carefully reopen, while experts were divided about whether some further modest easing was justified due to the strain of the state’s sixth lockdown on Victorians.

Premier Daniel Andrews on Wednesday. Credit:Getty

On Tuesday, the government flagged a “modest” relaxation of restrictions and a road map out of lockdown based on the number of community transmission cases staying low, but Mr Andrews said on Wednesday he had abandoned that plan and accepted that cases of the Delta variant could not be driven down to zero or suppressed to very low numbers.

“We’ve thrown everything at this, but it’s now clear to us that we are not going to drive these numbers down – they are instead going to increase,” Mr Andrews said. “Now it’s up to us to ensure that they don’t increase too fast and they don’t increase too much.”

The remaining restrictions will remain in place until 70 per cent of the eligible Victorian population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, expected about September 23. As of Wednesday, about 57 per cent of Victorians had received one dose of the vaccine, while 35 per cent have been fully vaccinated.

The Premier insisted that at least some restrictions would need to remain until the national plan figure of at least 70 per cent of the eligible population receiving two doses of the vaccine had been reached, to prevent coronavirus cases from rapidly rising and overwhelming the healthcare system. That level of vaccination is expected to be reached in late October.

Industry groups slammed Mr Andrews’ announcement for its lack of a plan to revitalise the economy, while the opposition called it a “huge kick in the guts”.

Innes Willox, chief executive of the national employer association Ai Group, contrasted NSW “outlining its ambitions to reopen Sydney’s international border by November while Victoria announced plans to reopen playgrounds”.

“It says it all really,” Mr Willox said. “Our two largest states need to get on the same page as soon as possible and this will be best achieved by Victoria raising its aspirations for COVID freedom beyond such small mercies. If the aim is to shutter many more businesses in the state, Victoria is moving in the right direction.”

NSW reported 1116 new local coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the fifth consecutive day with cases above 1000. Another four women died from the virus.

Mr Andrews’ announcement means Victorians will remain in lockdown on Father’s Day, the AFL grand final and the grand final public holiday.

The playground ban has been overturned in recognition of the mental health impact of the prolonged lockdown on children. In-home care for school-aged children if both parents are authorised workers will also be permitted from Friday. But under the new rules, playgrounds will only be for children under 12 with one parent or carer, and adults will not be allowed to remove their masks to eat or drink. Playgrounds will also have QR codes for checking in.

The General Achievement Test (GAT) for year 12 students has also been rescheduled for October 5, Mr Andrews confirmed, and students in Melbourne will not be allowed to return to the classroom for the remainder of term 3. The prospect of face-to-face learning in term 4 remains unclear.

“In the last two days, the number of cases, the nature of those cases, the depth of the seeding of this outbreak has become clear and the Chief Health Officer’s advice to me and to the government has fundamentally changed,” Mr Andrews said.

“The data and the evidence and the experts are very clear with us: we will not see those case numbers go down, they are going to go up. The question is by how many and how fast?”

It remains unclear what freedoms Victorians would be allowed to enjoy when the state reaches the national cabinet agreed threshold of 70 per cent of the eligible population being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The city’s 9pm curfew will remain for now – a decision some infectious diseases experts did not agree with.

“I do think the curfew could go,” said Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett. “It creates more mental pressure than anything you gain in terms of infection control.

Vast swaths of regional Victoria may be released from lockdown next week, but community leaders remain divided, with some frustrated restrictions are not being lifted immediately and others favouring a gradual easing of rules.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said too many Victorians had sacrificed so much during what was meant to be a “short, sharp” lockdown.

“There’s nothing in this for our school kids to get back in the classroom, there’s nothing in this for businesses to get back open, there’s nothing in this for families to see each other,” he said.

Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp said the latest lockdown extension was devastating news for Melbourne’s small businesses.

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Paul Guerra.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“Business owners are desperate to know when they can open their doors and welcome back customers,” Cr Capp said. “They are craving hope.”

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Paul Guerra shared a similar frustration.

“We asked for a plan, a road map, ambition and hope,” Mr Guerra said. “Instead, we got confirmation that most Victorian businesses will remain unable to trade for the foreseeable future.”

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely, who early last week advocated a lighter lockdown to ease the mental health burden, on Wednesday said Victoria was no longer in a position to ease any restrictions.

He said cases had been increasing by 5 per cent every day on average since last week and if the daily rise was faster than that by September 23, the government should consider halting its plans to ease further restrictions.

“The moonshot was if cases hadn’t moved, and stayed at 40 per day, you could have relaxed restrictions slightly and let cases go up to 500 by the end of October,” Professor Blakely said.

“We lost that headroom because cases are going up … and the game has changed.

“If the virus was continuing on its current trajectory, just using a simple Excel model, we are going to peak in October at 2000 a day. That’s not a scenario we’re looking forward to. We don’t want to be relaxing restrictions now and giving the virus any more room to move. If it went from 5 per cent daily increase to even 6 or 7 per cent, at the end of October, that peak would be two or three times higher. We really are in a bind.”

While acknowledging Wednesday’s coronavirus case numbers were “not great”, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said Victoria’s lockdown had averted a major crisis.

Recent Burnet Institute modelling for the Andrews government estimated more than 6000 additional COVID-19 cases and 600 extra hospitalisations had been avoided because of the strict lockdown that was implemented just a day after one new case was reported last month.

“Absolutely it’s tough – three weeks seems like an eternity, that the light at the end of the tunnel is too dim and the tunnel is too long, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Professor Sutton said.

“There is a genuine pathway out of here that means we can take those small steps forward bit by bit and not have to take backwards steps again. But it is such hard work for parents, for kids, for whole families and for single people, for all of us who miss that human contact.”

He said Victoria was due to reach double dose vaccination targets in October and early November.

When asked if Melburnians would remain in lockdown until the state hit those inoculation targets, Professor Sutton said he didn’t know.

“We know that the real world epidemiology will be just as informative here,” he said.

“We are in circumstances where we’re facing a Delta epidemic … and we are racing and making the time and space to vaccinate as many people as we can. We will see the curve bend on this outbreak, but we also have to follow exactly what’s happening in NSW to tell us what the real world can also show us as well as the model.“

Premier Daniel Andrews (centre), Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton (left) and COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar on Wednesday.Credit:Getty

Parents and academics welcomed the government’s decision to lift the ban on playgrounds, which was imposed two weeks ago amid fears about the spread of coronavirus among children following a number of suspected cases of outdoor transmission and a surge in infections involving school students under 10.

“The playground ban was always a silly idea,” said infectious diseases paediatrician Robert Booy.

When the ban was introduced, Professor Sutton said his team was investigating a potential case of playground transmission and a “more definitive” incident of transmission between students who walked home together.

However, on Wednesday, he acknowledged that closing playgrounds was as much about preventing adults from congregating in parks and potentially causing further outbreaks.

Professor Sutton said if adults used the playgrounds as an opportunity to meet with friends, he would shut them down again.

Of Wednesday’s 120 COVID-19 cases, 64 have been linked to current outbreaks, while 56 remain under investigation. Only 20 were in isolation for their infectious period.

Mr Andrews said a 49-year-old woman, who died on Tuesday afternoon with COVID-19, was not known to health authorities as a positive case.

With Noel Towell and Chloe Booker

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