New Zealand moved to its own Stage 4 with less than 100 daily cases. Should Victoria have acted sooner?

A man walks down Swanston Street after a citywide curfew is introduced in Melbourne. Source: AAP

Stubbornly high levels of community transmission eventually forced the Victorian government's hand on Stage 4 restrictions.

The adoption of tough Stage 4 coronavirus restrictions in Melbourne has prompted questions about whether the Victorian government should have acted earlier. 

Melbourne was put under a Stage 4 lockdown on Sunday after recording 671 new infections. The rest of Victoria is set to re-enter Stage 3 restrictions at 11:59 on Wednesday. 

Some, such as physician and broadcaster Dr Norman Swan, have compared Melbourne's situation with New Zealand, which went into its own version of a Stage 4 lockdown before daily cases reached 100. 

Monash University Associate Professor Philip Russo, an expert in healthcare-associated infection prevention, said the Victorian government faced an enormously tough decision when considering whether and when to tighten rules. 

“In retrospect it is easy to say we could have come down hard earlier, but then if you do, you are often criticised for overreacting,” he told SBS News.

“If everyone had been doing what they were supposed to be doing in Stage 3, we wouldn’t need to be here."

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has delivered the state's daily coronavirus update.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday announced Stage 4 restrictions for Melbourne.

Premier Daniel Andrews introduced a Stage 3 lockdown in Melbourne in early July. By the end of the month new infections were still rising, peaking at 723 on 30 July. 

Professor Raina MacIntyre, who leads the biosecurity program at UNSW's Kirby Institute, has previously said the Stage 3 lockdown was hamstrung by a lack of compliance. 

"The stage three lockdown is not working, or people are not complying. This is the time to consider a fuller lockdown," she said last week. 

"If cases continue to grow, the human resources capacity for case finding and contact tracing may be exceeded."

The stubbornly high levels of community transmission eventually forced the Victorian government's hand on Stage 4 restrictions. 

"Community transmission is in many respects out biggest challenge and the reason why we need to move to a different set of rules," Mr Andrews said on Sunday while announcing the escalation in restrictions.

"If you have that many cases of community transmission, you must assume you have even more and on that basis you can no longer be confident that you've got a precise understanding of how much virus is there. You have to er on the side of caution and go further and harder."

The lockdown of metropolitan Melbourne includes a 5kms distance limit for leaving your house and a strict 8pm to 5am curfew each night.

During the curfew, people in Melbourne can only leave their house for work, and essential health, care or safety reasons.

Mr Andrews also announced additional business restrictions on Monday, which will put a further dent in the Victorian economy. 

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the impact on Australia's economy would be greater than the $3.3 billion Treasury estimated the initial six-week lockdown would cost.

"Victoria is a quarter of the national economy," he told the ABC.

"This is a real kick in the guts to Victorian businesses, which will have an impact on employment."

'Short, sharp and severe'

Michael Baker, a professor of public health at New Zealand's Otago University, said the success of his country's Level 4 lockdown relied on moving hard and moving early.

"We went for the short, sharp and severe approach," he told SBS News.

"It certainly paid off as we have completely eliminated community transmission for almost three months now, which has enormous public health benefit but we have been able to open up the economy as well."

Under New Zealand's Level 4 rules, schools were closed, all businesses were closed except for essential services, travel was severely limited and all public venues were shut. 

Professor Baker said Australian leaders should be unequivocal in pursuing a total elimination strategy, adding that it was achievable and gave certainty to the community and businesses.

"We, like most states in Australia, have totally eliminated the virus, as has much of the Pacific. So Victoria and New South Wales are really the odd ones out in this region now," he said.

New Zealand recorded some 89 daily infections at the height of its outbreak. There are now less than 30 active cases in New Zealand, all of which are being monitored under quarantine. 

Professor Russo said it was difficult to draw direct comparisons with New Zealand, because the country had a much lower population than Australia as well as different challenges. 

Infection stabilises, but no decline

Marylouise McLaws, adviser to the World Health Organization on coronavirus infection control, said more public data was needed to properly scrutinise Victoria's response. 

“You’ve had mandatory mask use since 22 July, but that hasn’t dampened things as much as you would have thought," she told SBS News. 

"The growth has slowed but there is no decline. There is stability, but no decline. That would have officials very worried."

She said she was hopeful the current Stage 4 restrictions would be enough to bring the virus under control, especially given the policies around curtailing of movement.

“It comes with a lot of potential restrictions, so I hope it will be enough. I hope everyone witnesses how important it is for everybody to participate in all of the requirements,” she said.

Professor Russo added that he thought policies such as the curfew would make a difference.

“I think the curfew is much easier to police and compliance should be better. The harsher restriction for workplaces should have a big impact as well. It’s all about restricting the movement of people,” he said.

Metropolitan Melbourne residents are subject to Stage 4 restrictions and must comply with a curfew between the hours of 8pm and 5am. During the curfew, people in Melbourne can only leave their house for work, and essential health, care or safety reasons.

Between 5am and 8pm, people in Melbourne can leave the home for exercise, to shop for necessary goods and services, for work, for health care, or to care for a sick or elderly relative. The full list of restrictions can be found here.

All Victorians must wear a face covering when they leave home, no matter where they live.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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