Victoria’s “end game” with COVID-19 no longer includes eliminating the virus but a permanent change to daily life for years.
In disturbing new evidence to the state’s inquiry into the coronavirus second wave outbreak in Victoria, the Premier Dan Andrews has warned it’s a feature of outbreaks around the world that the second phase of infections is often more deadly than the first.
When asked what the “endgame” of the extreme restrictions were the state’s chief health officer Brett Sutton also confirmed it was suppression, rather than elimination and it could be a battle that lasts for years.
He also signalled that public mask wearing would have to remain as a “baseline” restriction for a long time.
“There may be a path that has very, very low case numbers with a kind of baseline level restrictions, universal mark wearing, changed human behaviours very broadly applied across the population that can keep numbers low,” Professor Sutton said.
“But I think it always comes with the danger that it can re-emerge and take off again.”
Professor Sutton conceded masks were imperfect, but that given the level of community transmission it was a case of doing whatever they could do to bring cases down.
“Although imperfect, cloth masks worn broadly in the community can have a significant effect,’’ he said.
“Although it doesn’t present as a game-changer, we were really looking to have whatever interventions that we possibly could in Victoria, especially ones that were relatively low cost and low impost, compared to taking more significant measures.”
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In terms of when masks would no longer be required, Professor Sutton said that depended on whether a vaccine can be found.
“I don’t think that it will be available in the next six months, but I do think there’s a very very good chance that it will be available within the next 12 to 18 months,’’ Mr Sutton said.
Mr Andrews also suggested that the goal of elimination was not a real option, despite being raised as the only way to return to normal life.
“The endpoint is to lower numbers and get numbers as low as possible so that we can have confidence that we can manage the inevitable outbreaks that will occur, and the inevitable transmission that we will see,’’ he said.
“But again, if you opened up now … there is no flattening of the curve, there’s no moderate outcome, it takes off like a bushfire, and you’ve got no chance of putting it out.”
Speaking at a press conference shortly after his grilling at the inquiry, the Premier said he could not guarantee that the current restrictions will work within the six week time frame.
“It’ll only have the maximum chance of working in six weeks if everybody plays their part,” he said.
“That’s why we’re so grateful the vast majority of people are. Your point about increased compliance, to more people at home, more people doing the right thing, so less people doing the wrong thing, that’s my sense of it.”
Mr Andrews also told the inquiry there was no question that the impact of the restrictions would scar the economy for years.
“I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that this is the end, there will be a budget later on in the year acknowledging the damage that has had to be done,’’ he said.
“That’ll be a major feature of the budget, as well as the impacts not just on business but on workers’ families, communities. We know that this is a one in 100-year event, and the damage done because of it will be long-lasting and will be very significant. That’s why we’ll have to stand with everybody who’s been impacted and stand alongside them strongly and provide them with all the support.”
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos told the parliamentary inquiry there would have seen 20,000 additional cases of the coronavirus a day if the state had not moved to a tougher lockdown.
The same modelling forecast that without tougher restrictions 8,000 Victorians would be hospitalised with COVID-19.
“Stage-three restrictions in Melbourne and the introduction of mandatory masks slowed the growth in case numbers but we needed to do more to reduce the number of cases more quickly,” she said.
But it was also revealed that there is no clear modelling on what outcomes the Stage 4 restrictions alone will deliver, beyond that the existing ones were not working fast enough to get infections under control.
“I’m not aware of modelling that already incorporates stage 4 restrictions,’’ Professor Sutton said.
“What we did see is the effect of what the stage 3 restrictions showed us in terms of the effective reproduction number. That demonstrated that it was driving transmission down and that numbers were expected to plateau. The addition of masks were modelled to a degree with respect to driving mission down further.”
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Earlier, Liberal MP Richard Riordan grilled Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and the Premier over reports the government was warned on May 11 that there were concerns at poor infection control in the hotel quarantine scheme.
“But, Premier, Premier, after a month of acknowledging failures in hotel quarantine, nothing has been seen, no admissions by you have been made, no acknowledgement of the error has been made by you,” he said.
“Victorians have trusted you to keep them safe. You have catastrophically let them down. Will you apologise to Victorians?”
Mr Andrews replied: “As I’ve said, Mr Riordan, I’m the leader of the government and the leader of the state and I take responsibility for all of the decisions that are made across our government and the performance of all of our agencies.”
“That ultimate responsibility is an important function of the job that I have, the great honour that I have to serve as the Premier of this state.”