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One of world’s toughest coronavirus lockdowns relieves itself in Melbourne – by a hair

MELBOURNE, Australia – After more than 100 days under one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns, residents of Australia’s second-largest city get hard-earned reprieve – but terms highlight deep global divide on the need for lockdowns to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

As of July 9, Melbourne residents have been banned from leaving their homes except briefly for a handful of reasons, including exercise and food shopping within a three-mile radius. Most of the offices and points of sale were closed. Restaurants and cafes were only open for take out or delivery orders. A nighttime curfew was not lifted until the end of last month.

Now, with daily infections falling to just two from a peak of more than 700 and three consecutive days without coronavirus deaths, health officials in Victoria state, which includes Melbourne, are easing the most stringent restrictions, while maintaining a tighter global foreclosure than those prevalent almost everywhere else in the world.

Starting Monday, Melbourne’s five million people will be able to travel up to 15 miles from their homes, and a two-hour limit on outdoor exercise will be lifted. By November 1, retail and hospitality outlets, including restaurants, cafes and hair salons, may reopen at limited capacity. Weddings will be limited to 10 participants, including the couple exchanging vows; funeral, at age 20.

With many small business owners already at the breaking point, Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said the November 1 target date could be brought forward if infection rates, as measured by a 14-day moving average of daily cases, were declining faster than expected. But it did not provide an update for industries such as construction, manufacturing and meat processing, many of which were operating under capacity restrictions.

The tough tactics underscore the divergent approaches countries continue to take to tackle the virus as 2020 nears its final weeks. American and European leaders are grappling with an upsurge in coronavirus infections. But they also struggle to balance these concerns with the economic and social upheaval caused by the lockdowns.

That public health officials are now saying broad lockdowns are not needed and that they are unlikely to be obeyed.

In Australia, however, public health officials are sticking to the aggressive, almost zero tolerance approach to community transmission they have taken since the start of the pandemic. Even with the new easing, Andrews stressed that Melbourne’s exit from lockdown will remain cautious and gradual.

“These lockdowns come with pain, damage and injury, but the strategy is working,” Andrews said at a televised press briefing on Sunday. “What this means is that, as other parts of the world enter a murderous winter, with heartbreaking lockdowns and restrictions,” Victoria can now “build a Covid-normal 2021,” he said. he declares.

Mr Andrews asked for a direct comparison with the UK, which had a similar number of infections in August, when daily cases in Victoria peaked at 725.

“Today, as Victoria registers two new cases, the UK has reached 16,171,” he said. “And as we continue to ease our restrictions, they are forced to increase theirs.”

Melbourne’s restrictions came into effect after a breach of hotel quarantine protocols this summer sparked a second wave of infections as the rest of Australia was virtually virus-free. Officials first tried a more targeted round of block-by-block restrictions, but imposed the hard lockdown when they failed to contain the spread.

As a result of the outbreak, Victoria now accounts for 816 of Australia’s 904 deaths and nearly three-quarters of the total number of cases, according to official statistics.

The severe restrictions reduced Melbourne’s infection rate, but they also crippled a city consistently ranked among the most livable in the world. Business groups and political opponents criticized the state’s response as being unnecessarily onerous with a disproportionate impact on the economy and social well-being.

“There is no valid reason to maintain restrictions on business, especially with the number of cases clearly on a downward trajectory,” said Jennifer Westacott, CEO of the Business Council of Australia. “Just being allowed to have your hair cut or go out a bit more when you have no job, no money and your business has failed is just not enough.”

With Victoria accounting for about a quarter of Australia’s gross domestic product, the restrictions have dragged on the economy of the entire country, which is in recession for the first time in almost 30 years.

And Australian football’s grand final, the local equivalent of the Super Bowl, will be played outside Melbourne next week for the first time in its 123-year history.

The lengthy restrictions have led to public frustration and fatigue, contributing to sporadic small public protests and court challenges by small business owners over the validity of the lockdown.

Following the lockdown, Australian football’s grand final – the local equivalent of the Super Bowl – will be played outside Melbourne for the first time.


Photo:

michael dodge / Shutterstock

Health experts and medical associations have broadly supported the Victorian government’s pandemic measures, but stressed the need to mitigate the serious mental health implications triggered by the prolonged lockdown, as well as the losses of jobs and the associated social disconnection, especially among young people and disadvantaged people. groups.

Greg Hunt, Australia’s Conservative national government health minister, said federal data showed a 31% increase in the number of Victorians requiring mental health support in the past two months, up from an increase of 15 % at national scale. The number of calls to the Beyond Blue mental health support service was 90% higher in Victoria than in the rest of the country in August.

“The second wave, which led to the lockdown, had a huge impact on the mental health of Victorians and their economic prospects,” said Josh Frydenberg, treasurer of Australia.

An Oct. 14 poll by polling firm Roy Morgan showed the Prime Minister’s approval rating remained robust at 59%, although down 11 percentage points from five weeks earlier.

Mr Andrews, who heads a center-left Labor government, insisted harsh measures are needed to prevent a potentially worse third wave of infections that could overwhelm hospitals and force an even longer shutdown.

He said infection rate targets were based on supercomputer scenario modeling and in extensive consultation with public health experts, and have consistently weighed in against economic and social pain. Many restrictions will likely remain in place for at least several more weeks.

“These are not easy decisions to make, there is a lot at stake,” Andrews said Sunday. “And if we do too much, too fast, then we’ll be where neither of us ever wants to be – start over, come back to where we were.”

Write to Philip Wen at philip.wen@wsj.com

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