Ultimate virus decision facing Victoria



Victoria is facing a crucial week in its battle against the coronavirus as the results of the state's strict lockdown become known.

Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely told news.com.au that the impact of stage four measures, including a strict curfew, should start to be known this week and this would enable experts like himself to create modelling on Victoria's future.

There's already been relief as the state's daily case numbers dropped below 300 last week after reaching a peak of more than 700. Focus is now turning to what Victoria's endgame will be.

Prof Blakely said the models would show how likely it is for the state to achieve the goal of "no community transmission" and whether it was worth maintaining strict restrictions for longer.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said Australia is aiming for "no community transmission", a goal that is in line with an elimination strategy, even though Australia is still following a suppression strategy.

But his comments were made before Victoria's second wave peaked and a six-week stage four lockdown was introduced. The state's pathway to that goal now seems much more difficult.

The coronavirus may have spread so much in Victoria that it may be impossible for the state to pull it back within a timeline and economic cost that is acceptable.

"Modelling will show what is going to be our best goal, whether to go hard and try for elimination or to accept we are going to live in suppression land," Prof Blakely said.

Prof Blakely believes elimination is still achievable but the state faces three hurdles to achieving this, including the high infection rates that may have allowed the coronavirus to become embedded in various sectors.

"If only we had gone hard and early - witness New Zealand in the last 48 hours," Prof Blakely said.


Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will begin to see results from Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown this week. Picture: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will begin to see results from Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown this week. Picture: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images


New Zealand quickly introduced a stage three lockdown in Auckland and a stage two lockdown in the rest of the country when four positive cases were discovered on Tuesday. Prior to this the country had managed more than 100 days without community transmission.

"For Australia to get to elimination now it's going to be a lot harder than it was for New Zealand," Prof Blakely said.

"The virus has got its hooks into many nooks and crannies of Australian society."

Prof Blakely said New Zealand's new cases had also cast doubt on how sustainable maintaining zero community transmission is, and this is something Victoria needed to consider.

But he said outbreaks were very much part of the elimination plan and path.

"If New Zealand is successful in stamping out this outbreak then they will again be in a much better place than NSW or Victoria," he said.

Another important hurdle was whether Victoria and NSW could both be convinced to aim for elimination.

"It's probably pointless for one state to go for elimination if the other is not going to do it, because the virus will eventually jump the border," Prof Blakely said. "It's got to be a national thing."

So far NSW has resisted introducing a lockdown or mandatory masks to drive down the 20-odd cases per day that are spreading throughout the community.


However, NSW may be demonstrating that a suppression strategy can work.

It has managed to keep its coronavirus cases to less than 30 cases a day for more than two months despite some large outbreaks in Sydney pubs and restaurants.

"We do appear to have examples of countries living with the virus without surging in and out of lockdown, for example South Korea and maybe NSW," Prof Blakely said.

"Moreover, as time ticks by and a vaccine gets closer, the 'return to investment' of going for elimination lessens.

"That said, it may be that going for elimination now in NSW or Victoria is still the best option - our modelling will take another week or two."


NSW has had success so far in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Jenny Evans/Getty Images
NSW has had success so far in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

The ramifications of abandoning the elimination goal of "no community transmission" means Victoria may be stuck in a yoyo economy as it balances suppressing the virus with supporting the economy.

This would become even more complicated if other states and territories in Australia do manage to get control of the virus, meaning Victoria could be isolated from the rest of the country for years.

High rates of ongoing cases in Victoria would also pose a continuing infection risk to other states and territories.



"I doubt a six-week hard lockdown will be enough to achieve elimination (of community transmission) - it will probably take longer," Prof Blakely said.

Victoria's Treasury secretary David Martine told the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC) on Wednesday that the government's modelling assumed Melbourne would shift to stage three by the end of September.

The stage four lockdown was originally set to run until September 13.

Mr Martine also pointed to restrictions remaining in place until December.

"For the December quarter, we're assuming stage three migrating to a stage two scenario," Mr Martine said.

"We're in an environment where it's very difficult to do economic forecasting."

Prof Blakely noted that eliminating community transmission of the virus was not the "end game" but an ideal holding place.

"Elimination is the ideal goal for Australia, it's the ideal holding pattern (hopefully until we get a vaccine)," he said. "The issue now is how achievable it is."

If the country did achieve elimination it would allow the economy to get back to about 95 per cent of what it was before the pandemic, Prof Blakely said.

"New Zealand demonstrates that this can happen. They lost their international tourists but gained domestic tourists."




Originally published as Ultimate virus decision facing Victoria