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As an epidemiologist, I am not supposed to start out with anecdote. But these are exceptional times.
On Saturday, I helped my son move out of his sharehouse to my place – seeing me travel beyond my 5km radius. (Yes, it is a permitted reason. And yes, we were being super careful with masks and keeping distance.)
People gathering outside the Peacock Inn Hotel in Northcote
Fitzroy was an eye-opener. Lots of people out and about, congregating in groups outside cafes and eateries selling takeaway. The footpaths outside pubs were congested with young folk drinking and having a good time.
Does it matter? Yes. Because the COVID that is out there at the moment is mostly among children and young folk.
But it is not just “bad youth”. On Sunday I went for my bike ride (within my 5km radius, by myself). Lovely day again. Spring in the air. Families and children all congregating at parks and playgrounds.
Parents sipping their lattes and chatting to other parents pushing kids on the swing. Masks down. It would be a lovely Melbourne scene – if not for wretched COVID.
Does it all matter? Yes. In lockdown 5, we saw a lovely progression from daily cases in the community to all cases in quarantine, and after three days of zero cases in the community, we came out of lockdown. Textbook. Aren’t we Melburnians clever! The masters of lockdown.
But lockdown 6 is not following the textbook. Infectious cases in the community are not coming down. And we have a constant stream of about five mystery cases per day. Bugger.
What realistically were our options? First, we could have done nothing and hoped that the cases would turn around.
But, just as you never gave rugby wingers like Jonah Lomu or David Campese any room to move, you do not give Delta wiggle room. Wiggle room plus Delta can equal NSW.
People gather for a “pub crawl” in Richmond on Saturday.Credit:Nine
Melbourne is not so far gone that we have lost control of Delta – yet. Just idly sitting on our hands, doing more of the same, would have had a reasonable probability of us in limbo-land lockdown with case numbers bobbing around – until increasing vaccination coverage tipped the balance our way.
The alternative option was to try something more. To give it one more heave-ho. To see if we, in two weeks, could get those community cases back down to zero. Then hopefully (nothing is guaranteed) have a relatively normal life till vaccine coverage is much higher in November and we are somewhat safer.
The second option is what the Victorian chief health officer and government has opted for. I agree. I would even go so far as to say it was a no-brainer when you do the math.
Going harder means picking out those measures that are not too disruptive to society and the economy, and together with the whole package of measures, tip the balance in our favour.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton. Credit:Wayne Taylor
Curfews are contentious. But they will not have much impact on the economy when we are already in lockdown. And curfews should prevent some of the more egregious social gatherings that might be super-spreader events, and also help to reduce social mobility and contacts across the board.
I am often asked “what is the evidence curfews work?” I cannot point to any such “hard evidence”. But in a public health crisis, you have to use a balance of evidence and theory. And the theory is quite simple here – measures that reduce mobility and contacts reduce transmission.
Delta has a proclivity to spread among kids. So as wretchedly paternalistic as it sounds, closing playgrounds should help.
The construction industry is sometimes a venue of transmission. And data available to the CHO and COVID commander may be showing problems here.
Is there anything more we can do? Yes. As citizens, we need to reduce our contacts. It is tedious now spring feels like it is here, and we are all craving social connectiveness.
But activities like loitering around the coffee shop and the bottle store are something – if we want to get out of lockdown – we need to not do. For a bit longer at least.
Finally, as a Kiwi I am often asked by my mates back home, “why do you still have takeaway open during a hard lockdown?” I am not promoting the closure of takeaway just now, but it does seem the next bridge to cross if we do not see case numbers falling in a week.
Or we collectively say “not being able to get my takeaway coffee is a bridge too far as a Victorian. We will take our chances living with COVID, thanks.”
The right policy settings to make are hard to work out, and even harder to communicate. The probabilities and maths – I think – strongly support the measures we now have implemented.
They are not guaranteed to work. But I think it is better than 50:50 that they will work. And hopefully we get to zero transmission one more time, and mostly stay there until we get our vaccine coverage high.
Professor Tony Blakely is an epidemiologist and public health medicine specialist at the University of Melbourne.
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