MELBOURNE, Australia—After more than 100 days under one of the lengthiest and most stringent lockdowns in the world, residents of Australia’s second-largest city are getting a hard-earned reprieve—but the terms highlight the deep global divide over the need for lockdowns to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since July 9, residents of Melbourne have been forbidden to leave their homes except briefly for a handful of reasons, including exercise and shopping for food within a three-mile radius. Offices and retail outlets were mostly shut. Restaurants and cafes were open only for takeaway or delivery orders. A nightly curfew lifted only late last month.
Now, with daily infections down to just two from a peak of more than 700 and three straight days of no coronavirus deaths, health authorities in the state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, are easing the harshest restrictions, while keeping an overall lockdown tighter than those prevailing almost anywhere else in the world.
Starting Monday, Melbourne’s five million residents will be able to travel up to 15 miles from home, and a two-hour time limit for exercising outdoors will be scrapped. By Nov. 1, retail and hospitality outlets including restaurants, cafes and hair salons will be able to reopen at restricted capacity. Weddings will be capped at 10 attendees, including the couple exchanging vows; funerals, at 20.
With many small-business owners already at breaking point, Victoria’s state premier, Daniel Andrews, said the Nov. 1 target date could be brought forward if infection rates, measured by a rolling 14-day average of daily cases, decline faster than expected. But he didn’t provide an update for industries such as construction, manufacturing and meat processing, many of which have been operating under capacity restrictions.
The tough tactics underline the divergent approaches that countries continue to take in combating the virus as 2020 winds into its final weeks. Leaders in the U.S. and Europe are struggling with a renewed surge in coronavirus infections. But they are also struggling to balance those concerns with the economic and social dislocations caused by lockdowns.
Many public-health officials now say broad lockdowns aren’t necessary, nor are they likely to be obeyed.
In Australia, however, public-health officials are sticking with the aggressive, almost zero-tolerance approach to community transmission they have taken since the start of the pandemic. Even with the new easing, Mr. Andrews has emphasized Melbourne’s emergence from lockdown will remain cautious and gradual.
“These lockdowns have come with pain and damage and hurt, but the strategy is working,” Mr. Andrews said during a televised news briefing Sunday. “What it means is that as other parts of the world are going into a deadly winter, with lockdowns and restrictions that are heartbreaking,” Victoria can now “build a Covid-normal 2021,” he said.
Mr. Andrews invited direct comparison with the U.K., which had similar numbers of infections back in August when daily cases in Victoria peaked at 725.
“Today, as Victoria records two new cases, the U.K. hit 16,171,” he said. “And as we continue easing our restrictions, they are being forced to increase theirs.”
Melbourne’s restrictions came into effect after a breach in hotel quarantine protocols this summer sparked a second wave of infections when the rest of Australia was practically virus-free. Officials initially tried a more targeted series 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 its total cases, according to official statistics.
The tough restrictions have slashed Melbourne’s infection rate, but they have also crippled a city routinely ranked among the world’s most livable. Business groups and political opponents have criticized the state’s response as unnecessarily onerous with a disproportionate impact on the economy and social well-being.
“There is no sound reason to continue the restrictions on business, especially with case numbers clearly on a downward trajectory,” said Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. “Simply being allowed to go for a haircut or outside a bit more when you have no job, no money and your business has failed is just not good enough.”
With Victoria accounting for about a quarter of Australia’s gross domestic product, the restrictions have dragged on the entire country’s economy, which is in recession for the first time in almost 30 years.
And the Australian rules football grand final, the local equivalent to the Super Bowl, will be played next week outside Melbourne for the first time in its 123-year history.
The lengthy restrictions have led to public frustration and fatigue, contributing to small and sporadic public protests and legal challenges from small-business owners over the validity of the lockdown.
Health experts and medical associations have broadly supported the Victorian government’s pandemic-control measures, but have highlighted the need to mitigate the serious mental-health implications triggered by the prolonged lockdown, and the associated job losses and social disconnection, especially among the youth and disadvantaged groups.
Greg Hunt, the health minister in Australia’s conservative national government, said federal data showed a 31% increase in Victorians requiring mental-health support over the past two months, compared with a 15% increase nationally. The number of calls to mental-health support service Beyond Blue was 90% higher in Victoria than the rest of the country in August.
“The second wave, which led to the lockdown, has taken an extreme toll on the mental health of Victorians and their economic prospects,” said Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer.
An Oct. 14 survey by polling firm Roy Morgan showed the premier’s approval rating remained robust at 59%, albeit down by 11 percentage points from five weeks earlier.
Get a coronavirus briefing six days a week, and a weekly Health newsletter once the crisis abates: Sign up here.
Mr. Andrews, who leads a center-left state Labor government, has insisted that tough measures are necessary to stave off a potentially worse third-wave of infections that would risk overrunning hospitals and forcing an even longer shutdown.
He has said the infection-rate targets were based on supercomputer scenario modeling and in extensive consultation with public-health experts, and constantly weighed against the economic and social pain. Many of the restrictions are likely to remain in place for at least several more weeks.
“These are not easy decisions to make, there is a lot at stake,” Mr. Andrews said Sunday. “And if we do too much, too fast, then we’ll be where none of us ever want to be again—doing this again, back where we were.”
Write to Philip Wen at email@example.com
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8