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Andrews extends lockdown on a best guess

When the day finally came for Daniel Andrews to share with us his plans to revive the social and economic life of this city and state, the first job he talked about was his own.

Being Premier of Victoria was a job of great honour, filled with difficult decisions, he told us. Only in this case, his decision wasn’t difficult at all.

There was only one choice, he said. For him and, apparently, for us.

Daniel Andrews addresses the media on Sunday. He says he had no choice but to keep Victoria in lockdown.Credit:Getty Images

That choice – to keep greater Melbourne under tight COVID-19 restrictions until October 26 and beyond unless the average number of daily confirmed infections can be counted on one hand – relies heavily on modelling showing what could happen if we open up sooner.

The headline-grabber is that if we lift restrictions when daily cases are averaging 25, we’ll be back in lockdown for Christmas.

"You can’t argue with this sort of data," the Premier said. "You can’t argue with science."

Of course you can. Particularly science of this kind.

Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely, one of the co-authors of the government modelling Andrews cited, describes his work as highly stochastic. This means that, although it can statistically analyse the probability of something happening, it isn’t predictive.

It is also inexact.

"The conundrum of modelling is we simply don’t have enough information in a fast-moving pandemic to know that every parameter is exactly right," Professor Blakely explained. "There are huge amounts of chance in whether you get a third wave or not."

Let that last sentence sink in for a moment.

This doesn’t mean modelling should not shape Victoria’s public health response. Professor Blakely has produced work throughout this pandemic, including for this masthead, that has informed our understanding of how the virus spreads and what should be done to contain it.

Similar modelling at the start of the pandemic influenced the early decisions taken by national cabinet.

Yet, given we are now six months into this pandemic, government policy should not be wholly reliant on a best guess. It should also take into account what we have learnt about how the virus behaves in specific industries, work sites and social situations.

What’s missing from Victoria’s COVID-19 plan is evidence of extensive consultation between government, business and other sectors to determine where it is safe to reopen. It is a plan rightly informed by epidemiologists and public health officials, but a plan that makes little to no use of expertise beyond that.

Business Council chief executive Victorian government has not consulted enough with industry.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Jennifer Westacott, a Wesfarmers director and chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, gave voice to the frustration felt across Victoria’s business community when she appeared on the ABC’s Insiders program shortly before Andrews’ announcement.

"This is not about statistics, it is about people’s lives," she said. "It is about that sense of hope versus despair."

Westacott asked why retailers such as Bunnings, Target, K-Mart and Officeworks, having traded and avoided COVID-19 outbreaks throughout Melbourne’s entire stage three lockdown, are still shut for the foreseeable future.

"There [have] been consultations, but I don’t think it has been good enough," she said. "It is one thing to tell business things, it is another to work with them."

The government has worked with the construction industry, wholesale trade and warehousing, manufacturing and postal distribution centres to identify ways for sectors operating under heavy restrictions to further open by the end of this month.

A campaign by Jim’s Mowing against a health edict requiring lawnmowers and hedge trimmers to stay at home has also resulted in an easing of restrictions on garden maintenance.

Retail and restaurant owners, by contrast, have been stiffed.

Under the plan for greater Melbourne, restaurants, bars and cafes won’t be able to welcome customers inside their premises until the entire state has gone two weeks without a single COVID-19 case.

The government provisionally puts this date at November 23, but, as publican Paul Dimattina said, it could be January 2022.

Paul Dimattina (right), proprietor of South Melbourne’s Lamaro’s Hotel, with executive chef Geoff Lindsay.

"Zero transmission for 14 days straight, what sort of plan is that?" Dimattina says. "God gave Daniel Andrews ears and he is not using them to listen."

Ben Logan, the manager of Rinaldo Di Stasio’s restaurants, says the hospitality industry is devastated. "People are done, people are finished," he says.

Sunday’s announcement will do nothing to soothe the city’s jangled nerves. It has also ensured that next month’s Melbourne city council elections – a three-way race between lord mayor Sally Capp, her deputy Arron Wood and a Labor ticket headed by businesswoman Jennifer Yang – will boil down to a single-issue stoush about the COVID-19 response.

"We can’t run out of lockdown," the Premier told us. Somehow, Melbourne must get back on its feet.

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