Victoria’s four-step road map to reopening has been dubbed “unachievable” by one of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, as doubts continue to grow over the state’s ambitious plan.
The blueprint, unveiled on Sunday by Premier Daniel Andrews, shows restrictions on schools, work and outdoor gatherings should start to ease on September 28.
But that all depends on infections dropping to between 30 to 50 daily cases.
Once the state has hit that milestone, restrictions will continue to ease dependant on the number of daily cases and there is another magic number the state has to hit.
That third stage of easing will only kick in once the state’s 14-day average has hit an incredibly low number of five cases and there has to have been fewer than five unknown cases in a fortnight.
Even if it hits those numbers, the state will not introduce a third stage of easing until October 26.
RELATED: Follow our live coronavirus coverage
This goal is higher than the average two week numbers currently being recorded in Sydney, which has significantly lighter restrictions than the ones proposed in stage 3 of Victoria’s road map.
It’s a plan that has divided experts. Professor Peter Collignon, from the Australian National University’s medical school, says it is not sustainable.
“The problem is it’s an elimination strategy and I don’t think that’s realistic with the timeline laid out. There’s a lot of COVID in Vic that’s undetected and so I don’t think their timelines are likely to be achieved,” he told news.com.au.
“Harsh lockdowns can work in the short term but COVID can come back and that’s the problem. Even with a vaccine that might not be achievable, we have a vaccine for flu that is 30-50 per cent effective and we haven’t eliminated flu.”
He says another issue for Victoria is that the state’s contact tracing is not up to scratch.
“Many cases in Victoria that have been locally acquired in the last fortnight are still under investigation but they need to have that sorted out within 48 hours; Victoria does not have a good track record of contact tracing,” he said.
“What Victoria needs to do is be getting 95 per cent of tests back within 24 hours to encourage people to test and 95 per cent of contact tracing in 48 hours. Victoria is meeting neither of these major criteria.”
However, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, from the University of New South Wales, believes the push to hit the average of five cases before October 26 is justified.
“That’s a very good level that I’ve been pushing, so that authorities can chase up contacts and they can get them before they become a source of infection on day three,” she told news.com.au.
She says that three days after infection, people with COVID may not have symptoms but they start to become infectious.
“So the contact tracing has to be rapid, you have to have the human resources to be able to do it and when you have such few cases, like Victoria has set out, you should be able to handle that rapidly,” she said.
“The only time they would then be infectious to others is if they have taken too long to get tested.”
She said that if this materialises and the case numbers are too high, then it could slip away from Victoria once again.
“So by the time they got tested, their contacts have had a couple of days, they’re incubating it and if the contact tracers don’t work rapidly then the contacts become infectious to others, causing an outbreak or a cluster,” she said.
“This is why less than five cases a day is a very good indication that you are close to elimination.”
On the other side of the argument, Prof Collignon says elimination is unrealistic given that no other nation aside from Taiwan has achieved it.
“We need to restrict people’s movements but in a way that we could do for a few years so its needs to be sustainable. My worry about Victoria is this virus will not go away so the elimination stage is not realistic if you look at the rest of the world,” he said.
It was put to Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton today that the five case 14-day average was too ambitious, but he pointed to regional Victoria as an example of how that target could be hit in the coming weeks.
“I know people are watching the 14-day average pretty closely now given that our metrics refer to that,” he said. “For regional Victoria it’s only just above five.
“So I would expect in the two weeks from now, it will absolutely drop below five, all things being equal, and without outbreaks – significant outbreaks occurring.
He said that in metro Melbourne, that average in the last 14 days has been close to 100, but it was close to 400 only a month ago.
Today, Victoria has recorded its lowest virus case figures in more than two months, with 41 new COVID-19 cases and nine deaths overnight.
“So that continues to trend down and, again, in the two weeks from now, we could expect it to be below 50 as a reflection of today’s number,” said Prof Sutton.
Prof Collignon wasn’t convinced. He believes a better strategy would be to follow NSW.
“A more realistic strategy is that of NSW and the commonwealth where there is suppression and the virus at low levels and you do get elimination in some areas but it’s always going to be easy to come back because it’s so widespread around the world,” he said.
However, the experts don’t agree on that either because Prof McLaws believes it is “disingenuous” to compare the situations in NSW and Victoria.
She said that in Victoria, the virus broke out in highly-spreadable areas like an abattoir, public housing towers and aged care homes.
“The difference in the pattern of transmission in NSW is very complex because it’s across a very wide geographical area and it’s related to social venues, like cafes,” she said. “You can’t ring fence those because people will just go to another cafe.
“Victoria is also coming down from a peak, over a 14-day period, of 6300 cases. Sure they’re doing better now but they are still in the volcanic red zone.
“So you can’t compare the two because they are very different scenarios and it is disingenuous to say the same rules in NSW would work in Victoria, that is not true.”
Premier Daniel Andrews hit back at the NSW comparison today, saying the rate of community transmission makes the situation in NSW a lot different from the one in Victoria.
“It’s unfair not to acknowledge the fact that they haven’t had the community transmission that we’ve had. That’s not a point of pride. It’s just a fact,” Mr Andrews said.
“And trying to compare the two is not the same. I’ve seen all this commentary about, ‘Oh, well, under our settings, they’d be in lockdown’. No, they wouldn’t. Because they’ve not had the community transmission we’ve had. So we are different.”
Prof McLaws believes Australia should be ambitious in reducing case numbers to below five cases a day, because we were almost there before things spiralled out of control in Melbourne.
She said almost every state and territory has been able to sustain 14-day averages of less than five cases, and that NSW would have likely been in a similar boat had it not picked up cases from Victoria.
“Because people become infectious on day three, it’s very hard to eliminate COVID to zero cases forever, but you can get to very low cases, less than five every day, and assume that is as good as elimination,” she said.