Victorians are no strangers to the circumstances that lead to a complete lockdown, the devastation a widespread COVID-19 outbreak can cause, and the immense sacrifices made to combat the virus, reopen and move forward.
Premier Daniel Andrews has, for months, spoken of the “precious thing” that his state spent much of last year building.
And now, as residents are plunged into their third shutdown – a five-day “circuit breaker” that will see, among other things, the four sole reasons to leave home once again imposed – Mr Andrews has explained why this time presents a far greater challenge than the last.
“Victorians will be well familiar with the term ‘UK strain’, ‘UK variant of concern’,” the Premier told reporters this afternoon.
“We have talked about this for a long time, because it is so hyper-infectious, and moves so fast, that it is presenting a very, very real challenge to our status, our stay-safe, stay-open, our precious thing that we’ve built – all of us – throughout 2020.”
While he acknowledged there were no coronavirus cases outside of the close contacts of a hotel quarantine worker who tested positive on Sunday, “the way in which they are presenting is a very significant concern to us”.
“I’ll make the point this way. We are having cases test positive – and we, in rapid time, we get notified of that positive test result – by the time we find that case as positive, they’ve already infected their close contacts,” Mr Andrews said.
“Their family. People they live with, people they’ve spent time with. That makes it incredibly difficult, incredibly difficult to do contact tracing, because there is no gap, if you like, between when we have the first case and their close contacts and potentially others that they have spent time with.
“The whole process, because of the hyper-infectivity and the speed with which this moves, the whole process has been condensed down.”
The health advice now, he said, is “that we must assume that there are further cases in the community than we have positive results for, and that it is moving at a velocity that has not been seen anywhere in our country over the course of these last 12 months”.
If Victorians wait for this “theory – that it might be out there, there might be more cases than we know about – if we wait for that to be proven correct, it will be too late”, the Premier added.
“And then we will face the prospect of being locked down until a vaccination is rolled out, a vaccine is rolled out to vulnerable people, to a very large number of Victorians, a significant percentage of the Victorian community,” he said.
“That’s months. That’s not days or weeks, that’s months. It’s not a criticism, it’s just that it’s a complex process and it’s going to take some time, and it’s not here yet.
“So because this is so infectious and is moving so fast, we need a circuit breaker.”
The reinstated restrictions “are all about making sure that we respond appropriately to the fastest-moving, most infectious strain of coronavirus that we have seen”.
“I know it’s not the news that Victorians want to hear today. I know it’s not the place that we wanted to be in. However, we’ve all given so much, we’ve all done so much. We’ve built something precious, and we have to make difficult decisions, and do difficult things, in order to defend what we’ve built,” Mr Andrews said.
“I am confident that this short, sharp circuit breaker will be effective. We will be able to smother this. We will be able to prevent it getting away from us.”
Chief health officer Brett Sutton warned that the alternative to bringing in the circuit breaker “is potentially devastating”.
“I do not want to be here either, come Wednesday, not having done this and talking about 10, 15, 20, 30 new cases a day, including mystery cases, or including cases that we can’t chase down. We need to be able to chase each and every case down so that we can get back the precious thing of no community transmission,” Professor Sutton said.
“Right now we need to be in a position where we can get entirely ahead of this, and not have a situation where the rate of increase with the B117 variant becomes exponential and stricter measures might be required for a longer period of time.
“We don’t want to be in that situation, so we need to do it now and we need to do that circuit breaker to get ahead of it.”