Inside Story

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Covid-19: where next?

Progress continues in Victoria, nationally and in much of Asia, but the international figures remain grim

Tim Colebatch 24 September 2020 2754 words

An outdoor exhibition of photos of healthcare workers in Melbourne’s Parkville Biomedical Precinct. James Ross/AAP Image

The second wave of Victoria’s coronavirus epidemic is coming to an end much faster than the forecasters predicted. But will that success change the government’s plans to keep the state in indefinite lockdown?

Victoria’s caseload — and hence its risk to other states — has fallen sharply; so how long will New South Wales and South Australia take to reopen to Victorians? And when will Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory reopen to the rest of Australia?

Finally, when will we enter the long-awaited “travel bubble,” opening our borders to flights from other countries deemed Covid-safe, and their borders to quarantine-free travel from here? Will the New Zealand election on 17 October clear the way for negotiations to start reopening the skies?

Three government-imposed barriers — the lockdown of Melbourne, the closure of most interstate borders, and the ban on travel to and from Australia (with exceptions) — must be lifted before the economy is likely to come out of its deep recession, which has so far cut Australia’s output by 7.25 per cent and left almost two million Australians unemployed or underemployed.

Lifting the barriers will not be enough to bring about a full recovery. Consumers and investors are likely to remain cautious until a successful global vaccine rollout removes the virus as a key factor in the way we live, or until we learn a way to live with the virus. Whichever it is, that could still be a long way off.

And, on current plans, it could still be quite some time before life in Victoria returns to anything like normal. Despite its plunging caseload, Melbourne faces another four weeks of curfew and lockdown. And there is not a single country, other than remote islands, that meets the threshold set by the Andrews government for the next easing of restrictions — such as allowing Victorians to have more than one family visit them at home.

Start with the good news. Melbourne’s rolling fourteen-day average of new cases — which the Andrews government uses to set the benchmark for easing its lockdown and curfew — has already rolled well past official predictions. Indeed, it’s rolled out of the range it was meant to be in for the next tweak of restrictions.

Premier Daniel Andrews’s threshold for the next easing was a city-wide rolling fourteen-day average of between thirty and fifty new cases (as the modellers forecast) by 28 September. Melbourne reached that range twelve days early, on 16 September, and is now rolling out the other side, with an average of 25.1.

The premier has flagged that he will announce a further easing of restrictions “in certain areas” on Sunday — but immediately cautioned that “they have to be cautious steps, steady steps and all the steps we take have to be safe.” In other words, don’t get your hopes up.

(One area he is likely to free from the curfew and lockdown is the Mornington Peninsula. It is the only local government area in Melbourne with no active cases — and it has three marginal seats, and a bunch of hostile voters who say they’re not part of Melbourne and don’t need to be locked down.)

The caseload has fallen so sharply — using the weekly tally of new cases, by 97 per cent from its peak in early August — that the government has ample room to move. But Andrews has flagged that any moves will be only modest; he wants this success to be seen as confirming that the hardline strategy is the right one, and one that Victorians will go on supporting.

While those opposed to the lockdown are growing increasingly angry and frustrated, they are a minority — and for them, the plan Andrews set out on 6 September offers little hope. Melbourne’s lockdown and curfew are to continue until at least 26 October, with only minor modifications to start next Monday: principally allowing another 100,000 workers (about 3 per cent of the total) to go back to work, allowing some students back into school, and reopening childcare.

And before the city can take the next step — returning it to something like the restrictions that applied in June — the rolling average of new cases statewide will have to fall to less than five a day, with no more than five new cases that officials cannot link to a known outbreak.

That’s just over ten new cases per million people in a fortnight. Among developed countries, only Taiwan and New Zealand (just) meet that test; New South Wales would have failed it until this week. It is extreme.

Independent epidemiologists, including the government’s modeller, Professor Tony Blakely of Melbourne University, have challenged the need to set the threshold so low. The infection of just one five-person household would provide a day’s quota; one of them each day for a fortnight would mean the entire city has to stay locked down and in curfew.

If Melbourne were to meet that threshold by 26 October, the curfew would be lifted. People would be free to come and go from their homes, and the five kilometre limit on travel would be removed. But you would still be allowed to invite only members of one nominated family to your home; public gatherings outdoors would be limited to ten people. Weddings and religious ceremonies would also be limited to ten people, with twenty allowed at funerals.

Schools would slowly reopen. Shops would reopen. Restaurants could reopen, but only with predominantly outdoor seating. People must still work from home if they can. Outdoor sport could resume for kids, but only non-contact sport for adults. Accommodation in hotels and motels could reopen, with caps. Entertainment would be allowed at outdoor venues only. It would not be life as we know it in the rest of Australia.

Those rules already apply in regional Victoria, whose 1.5 million people now include just ten active coronavirus cases. All but seven council areas in regional Victoria now have no coronavirus at all, but their residents are still subject to these restrictions, and the fines that come with them.

The threshold for the next step, in Melbourne and regional Victoria alike, is really steep. Victorians won’t be allowed to have visitors from more than one household, or have weddings or services with more than ten people, until the entire state has had no new cases of coronavirus for a fortnight. Until that happens, the third-step restrictions will stay on indefinitely.

Apart from some Pacific islands that have dodged the virus entirely, no country in the world would clear that threshold. None. Even Taiwan, the gold medallist in suppressing the virus, reports several new cases a week. Cambodia claims to have had only two cases in the past month, and Laos one, but some have been unkind enough to question the accuracy of their data.

No mainland states would pass that test. In the past fortnight, even South Australia has reported three new cases, Western Australia nine, Queensland ten, and New South Wales seventy-one. New Zealand has reported thirty-five. Tasmania and the territories haven’t reported any, but they are far smaller than Victoria.

Daniel Andrews and his advisers claim they are not attempting to eliminate the virus from Victoria. In fact the thresholds they set for the final two steps both require that the virus has been eliminated, so that is clearly untrue.

Their real aim seems to be to repeat what New Zealand did in the first wave of the virus: with the country closed down, it had three weeks in May and June with no new cases. But since it reopened, New Zealand has had more than 300 new cases, leading its government to send Auckland back into lockdown for several weeks — a lockdown lifted only after prime minister Jacinda Ardern overruled her health officials to order the city back to work ahead of the 17 October election.

For it is a question of getting the right balance. If a country or state is losing its fight to control the virus, as Western Europe is right now, clearly lockdowns are the best way to bring it under control. But there are many costs to that, as New Zealand can testify, and as Victoria too is seeing.

New Zealand’s statistics agency Stats NZ reports that in the June quarter, while the official unemployment rate was just 4 per cent, Covid-19 restrictions meant that 8 per cent of employees were in fact working no hours at all, while a further 13 per cent were working reduced hours.

The country’s GDP shrank 13.4 per cent in the first half of 2020, almost double the 7.2 per cent fall in Australia. New Zealand’s version of JobKeeper is far more inclusive than Australia’s, so the pain was felt more in business and government than in households. But when demand shrinks so much, businesses fail, people lose their jobs, and the young are the biggest victims.

Victoria is now well down that path. It has a quarter of Australia’s population, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that in the year to August, Victorians lost more paid hours of work than the rest of Australia combined. Victorians suffered almost half the nation’s job losses. And with JobKeeper and JobSeeker shrinking, each week in lockdown puts more pressure on firms and small businesses that are not earning enough money to survive.

The young are suffering the most. In a year, one in four full-time jobs for school leavers have disappeared. Some 105,000 Victorians aged fifteen to twenty-four are no longer in full-time education and have no job at all. We saw in the 1990s that prolonged recessions do permanent damage to the working lives of those who become long-term unemployed. That will happen again this time.

I puzzle over why this is such a low priority for the Andrews government, and for Victorians — particularly those who normally fight for progressive causes. It seems clear that to most of them, there is only one goal: to defeat the virus. And so they support the hard line of lockdowns, curfews and mass unemployment to ensure that it is defeated.

After conflicting polls two weeks ago, a deluge of recent polls has made that clear: from Essential, Newspoll, Roy Morgan, and (if less unexpected) Redbridge, run by Labor’s former deputy campaign director, Kos Samaras.

Together they show that, while the Andrews government’s support has been dented by its mistakes in handling the crisis, its lockdown policy enjoys solid support.

The one negative poll, by MediaReach for the state Liberals and leaked to the Herald-Sun, showed a double-digit landslide swing in four marginal seats to the Liberals. But I suspect we should file that in the same bin as the same pollster’s Northern Territory poll in late June for the Territory Alliance, which claimed the Alliance was evenly poised to win the territory’s August election. In fact it won just 13 per cent of the vote and one seat.

A Morgan poll two weeks ago reported that 70 per cent of Victorians supported the way Daniel Andrews has handled his job. The Australian on Tuesday reported that Newspoll found 61 per cent of Victorians think the premier has handled the epidemic well, and only 36 per cent think he has done it badly. The lockdown garnered slightly less support: 54 per cent of Victorians thought the restrictions “about right,” 6 per cent rated them “too lenient,” while 37 per cent judged them “too strict.”)

The Essential poll in the Guardian reported greater opposition: only 47 per cent of Victorians said their state government had responded well to Covid-19 — whereas in other states voters gave overwhelming support to their government’s response, ranging from 67 per cent in New South Wales to 84 per cent in Western Australia.

Only Morgan asked about voting intentions, and it found quite a swing. It reported that Labor’s support has slumped 6 per cent since the 2018 election — but that was an extraordinary high-water mark, so Labor still had 51.5 per cent of the two-party vote. Polling the regions is very difficult, but for what it’s worth, the poll implied a swing of 8 per cent against Labor in greater Melbourne but just 3 per cent in regional Victoria.

To me, the most telling responses in any poll came when Essential asked Victorians to agree or disagree with a series of statements about the crisis. Asked if “the restrictions affecting my area seem appropriate,” 60 per cent agreed and only 19 per cent disagreed. Just 32 per cent said the restrictions have had much impact on their own lifestyle. And 64 per cent thought the lockdown and curfew would be effective in stopping the spread of the virus.

It’s hard to disagree with that: the restrictions have clearly done the job asked of them. But the gains from reducing the daily average of new cases from 533 to fifteen are far greater than those from trying to reduce it from fifteen to zero, whereas the costs keep mounting at the same rate. At some point soon, the policy balance has to shift.

On border closures, the policy shift has begun, with almost daily announcements. South Australia has opened up to New South Wales and the ACT: only Victorians remain banned. Since the case rate in regional Victoria is now lower than in her own state, Gladys Berejiklian is considering whether to open borders to them. Even Annastacia Palaszczuk has joined in, allowing people from the ACT, Byron Bay and the NSW border region to come and enjoy Queensland.

All premiers except for Western Australia’s Mark McGowan have promised to open their borders by Christmas. WA voters seem to love keeping easterners out, and McGowan faces re-election next March. Queensland’s election is on 31 October; whoever wins, it’s assumed that its borders will open soon after that. The NT election is already out of the way. And well before Christmas on current trends, Victoria’s caseload will be low enough for there to be no reason to exclude it.

Interstate borders, at least in eastern and central Australia, should be open by the start of summer. International borders will take much longer to reopen — much longer.

Globally, the daily numbers of new cases are setting records, running at close to a million new cases every three days. Today’s numbers report 85,919 new cases in India, 43,995 in the United States, and an astonishing 16,096 in France — just before the French Open starts on Monday! Qantas chief Alan Joyce’s once-gloomy forecast that international travel won’t start returning to normal until mid 2021 now looks optimistic.

The idea of setting up a travel bubble among relatively Covid-free countries within our region ought to be a winner. While new case numbers are exploding in Indonesia (4634 yesterday), the Philippines (2180) and Nepal (1497), much of Asia is reporting little new activity. Last week, for example, the growth in the total caseload per million people was zero in China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea, one in Japan, two in Australia, four in New Zealand and the Maldives, and five in Sri Lanka. Most of the South Pacific remains Covid-free. Why not open the doors to safe neighbours?

Unfortunately, there are lots of reasons why. It might happen with New Zealand, maybe the South Pacific, possibly even Japan. But there are obvious political problems for Australia in negotiating an opening with China in this environment. And if we don’t open up to China — or it refuses to open to us — we risk another Beijing tantrum if we open up to Taiwan.

In other countries, the data can’t be trusted — either because they are doing little testing or because they are hiding the true numbers, or both. Last week Myanmar abruptly bumped up its caseload per million people from forty-four to eighty-two.

And situations change rapidly. Five months ago I wrote about Singapore and South Korea as examples of how to keep the virus under control. Both are still among the best in the developed world, but measured by growth in new cases per capita, South Korea now exceeds Australia, and Singapore exceeds Victoria. Outbreaks can erupt quickly, or spill out of secret cupboards, turning what seemed like a good idea into a threat to our hard-won victory over the virus.

If we are lucky, the debate in 2021 will shift from how to reopen interstate borders to how to reopen international ones: at the very least, for returning Australians, wider family members, skilled workers, students — and Covid-free neighbours. Too much depends on it for the doors to remain shut as now. Test, trace and quarantine has to be our path to the future. •

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