Lockdown extension is painful but necessary

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With the extension of most restrictions for an extra week in Melbourne, any thought that this was going to be another short, sharp lockdown has been extinguished. The number of outbreak exposure sites has continued to increase as the alarm bells sound from the government.

If the experience of last year taught us anything, it is that a low number of daily cases can hide a larger problem. During early June in 2020, infection rates on most days were in the single digits. By the end of the month, those numbers were rocketing and it was clear the outbreak was out of control.

Here we go again: Acting Premier James Merlino announces the extension of the lockdown. Credit:Eddie Jim

But it was not until August 2 that a state of disaster was declared and all of metropolitan Melbourne was put into stage four restrictions, including a curfew and a five-kilometre limit on travel. We know too well how long it took to get that outbreak back under control.

This time is different. The rapid publication of exposure sites is a clear sign that the government’s contact tracing system is more robust and rigorous than it was 12 months ago. Hotel quarantine has been tightened, at least in Victoria. Testing has also been vastly improved. The more than 50,000 tests completed on Tuesday add to a week of record figures.

All this has allowed us to gain a clearer picture of how the virus is spreading. But these advances are being tested by a variant of COVID-19 – first detected in India and known as B.1.617.1 or, in the new nomenclature, Kappa. There is disagreement on whether it’s the “beast” described by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, but any version of this coronavirus is frighteningly infectious.

For these reasons, we believe the state government is right to keep the strict restrictions in place in metropolitan Melbourne. To take the foot off the pedal now would make a repeat of last year far more likely.

The easing of restrictions in regional Victoria is sensible, but will largely rely on Melburnians staying put at home. There is a strong case of self-interest, with any further spread of the virus just delaying the end of the lockdown.

However, for many workers, particularly those in casual employment, a week without an income is a financial stretch. The lockdown’s extension to two weeks, and possibly beyond, will be tough. They cannot simply be left to make do.

Now that we have moved beyond the short lockdown that other states experienced – the reason for the federal government to hold back on extra financial help – it’s time for Canberra to assist. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has hinted he will reconsider financial assistance, and we urge him to do so. Whether this is in the form of a temporary version of JobKeeper or some other method is irrelevant, but it must assist those who are left without the ability to pay the bills through no fault of their own.

We welcome the state government’s now almost $500 million contribution to struggling businesses, and the five-day blitz to vaccinate health, aged care and disability workers. It should not have been left up to the state to do this, but it is the right thing to do.

Let’s also acknowledge how dismal we are all feeling about this, how concerned for the vulnerable and worried about the future. Remember, though, the resilience Victorians showed last year. We had good reason to be angry that the state government botched so many aspects of containing this disease, but most accepted there was only one way out.

Ultimately, the long lockdown proved to be the right call. Like the rest of Australia, Victorians spent most of the summer and autumn with no community transmission.

Complacency seeped in, not just at government level, but in the community. This outbreak on the doorstep of winter should shock that complacency out of us. The rush for vaccinations suggests it has, at least for now. Victorians know that the hard work required to win back our freedoms is before us.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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