Victoria’s ultra-cautious roadmap out of its lockdown, outlined by Premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday, reinforced the strong message that came from Friday’s National Cabinet.
Premiers are in the driving seat of exiting COVID-19 restrictions, and they are imposing the strictest speed limits — much slower than Prime Minister Scott Morrison would like — and ignoring federal government pressure.
Now, unsurprisingly, Andrews has indicated he will not be hurried, despite the cries from business and the sound of Canberra’s grinding teeth.
Andrews stressed his timetable was “not what many people want to hear — but it is the only option”. He warned “you can’t run” out of lockdown — or there would be a third wave.
The Federal Government doesn’t think it is the only option, and it didn’t mince words in a statement quickly issued from the PM, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt (the latter two are Victorians).
“To extend lockdown arrangements will be hard and crushing news for the people of Victoria,” they said.
Just in case anyone doubted where to sheet blame, this was “a further reminder of the impact and costs that result from not being able to contain the outbreaks of COVID-19”.
The statement stressed the roadmap was “a Victorian government plan”, distancing the feds from any ownership.
Morrison changed his tune
The tone was very different from Morrison’s words to Parliament last Tuesday, when he said: “Victoria has turned the corner and we, together with the Victorian Government, are planning to reopen Melbourne and reopen Victoria.”
Sunday’s federal statement declared: “The proposed roadmap will come at a further economic cost.”
“While this needs to be weighed up against mitigating the risk of further community outbreak, it is also true that the continued restrictions will have further impact on the Victorian and national economy, in further job losses and loss of livelihoods, as well as impacting on mental health.”
The Federal Government will talk to business in Victoria “to understand their concerns and seek to ensure they are addressed”.
Morrison and his ministers also had fresh praise for the NSW Government, which has its economy running despite continuing low levels of cases. They highlighted the Berejiklian Government’s successful contact tracing.
Federal help is being offered to strengthen Victorian contact tracing in the (probably vain) hope that could put the Victorian foot on the accelerator.
Critics quick to respond
Andrews has used elaborate modelling in reaching his strategy. But his critics argue the benchmarks, particularly at the back end of the timetable, are unrealistic.
For example, the last step in Melbourne’s easing, dated from November 23, is contingent on “no new cases for 14 days (statewide)”.
It was quickly pointed out if the Andrews’ road map were in place in NSW, that state would have a curfew now.
NSW’s tally announced on Sunday was 10 new cases to 8:00pm Saturday. The Melbourne curfew is to be lifted from October 26 if there is a statewide daily average over the previous fortnight of less than five new cases and a statewide total of less than five cases with unknown sources over that period.
For the immediate future, in Melbourne there will be an additional fortnight — beyond next weekend — of the hard lockdown, with some minimal tweaking.
The overnight curfew will start an hour later (at 9:00pm), exercise can be up to two hours, and singles will be able to form a bubble with someone else.
From September 28, if the cases have come down (the latest tally on Sunday was 63) to a 30-50 daily average in metro-Melbourne over the previous fortnight, there will be gradual relaxations, including the reopening of childcare. The State Government says step two would see about 100,000 people return to work across a number of sectors, including construction and manufacturing.
But Melbourne businesses in retail and hospitality will not be able to start getting back to reasonable activity until the end of October, and hospitality will be strictly limited.
The restrictions in regional Victoria will be eased from their already-lighter base.
Pressure on for Andrews — and Morrison
Business is up in arms. The Australian Industry Group predicted “catastrophic economic, health and social damage caused by the continued lockdown and [the] prospect of more months of sharply diminished activity”.
Frydenberg said a week ago that on Treasury estimates, in the December and March quarters more Victorians were expected to be on JobKeeper than in every other state combined. The calculations didn’t assume any extension of the lockdown. The roadmap could see the numbers even higher than anticipated.
The Andrews timetable will put pressure on the Victorian Government but also on Morrison.
Andrews’ hard line is stretching the tolerance of Victorians. Not only will many local businesses believe they can’t survive the longer restrictions, but some voters will be reaching levels of deep stress.
The pressure points on the Federal Government come from various directions.
There have been calls for it to just “do something”, to intervene, to override what are being seen as recalcitrant states. However it is not obvious it would have viable power to do so.
Even if it could intervene, it would be high risk — on health, economic and political grounds.
The extended Victorian lockdown will increase demands for the Government to provide more stimulus for the economy, and bolster the calls of those who say JobKeeper and the coronavirus supplement should not be phased down.
The Victorian roadmap won’t just feed into the budget numbers, but it will affect the public climate in which the October budget is brought down.
In that budget, the Government will be talking up hope. But on October 6, Victorians hearing the budget will be still under curfew, confined to takeaways, unable to see extended family.
“I want all of us to stay the course so that we can all have something approaching a normal Christmas,” Andrews said on Sunday. It will require quite a feat to deliver that, on the terms of this strict roadmap.
Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and chief political correspondent at The Conversation, where this article first appeared.