Victoria’s response to the pandemic is trapped between a stubbornly high case load and growing resistance to the public health message.

One of the governments simplest and most consistent messages since Victoria recorded its first COVID-19 case is that anyone who feels sick should stay home. Health Department surveys of 3810 people who this month tested positive to the virus show that in nine out of 10 cases this advice was either not understood or ignored.
In 90 per cent of cases, people who had runny noses or sore throats or low-grade infections went to work, went to school or popped out to the shops. They were, in the words of Premier Daniel Andrews, at the height of infectivity, yet they went out anyway and in some cases, spread the disease to others.
This revelation will prompt a mixed reaction. The Premier invited us to see the data as a “commentary on insecure work”. Others will seize upon it as evidence of social dysfunction.
Before you do either, put yourself in the shoes of one of these 3810 people.
Who among us can say, hand on heart, we have not had so much as a sniffle throughout this entire pandemic? Did you strictly self-isolate at the first sneeze?
If you woke up on a Monday morning with such minor ailments, would you call in sick straightaway or give yourself a day or two to shake things off?
This is why COVID-19 is such a devilish disease. As Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton explained, we are most infectious in the first few days after we come into contact with the virus. This is when, for many people, symptoms are extremely mild.
It is a disease you help spread before you know you have it. By the time most people confirm they are COVID-positive, the damage has already been done.
Premier Daniel Andrews and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton confront Victoria’s stubbornly high COVID-19 numbers.Credit:Enrique Ascui
“The very beginning of that runny nose or sore throat or cough or low-grade fever is when you are most infectious,” Professor Sutton said. “You are probably not that infectious after seven days.”
Professor Sutton knows Victoria’s public health response to the pandemic is being challenged in ways it never was during the initial wave of infections. The headline numbers bear this out.
On March 23, when Australia entered stage-three restrictions, there were 59 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Victoria. On July 7, when Melbourne and Mitchell Shire re-entered stage three restrictions, there were 199. Victoria’s initial wave peaked at 111 cases. Two weeks after the second lockdown, we are at 484 and rising.
This number is unlikely to trigger alarm or galvanise action. As Professor Sutton said, the public health response is battling fatigue as well as a highly infectious virus. “We are all a bit inured to the numbers,” he said. “If wed had a number close to 500 in March or April, we would have been staying in our bedrooms and not leaving the house.”
A virus spreading freely through the community, in workplaces, schools, hospitals and aged care centres, is a very different beast to one imported by returned travellers and passed on to friends and family. In March, COVID-19 was merely visiting; it has now got its hooks deep in Melbourne.
This is why Professor Sutton believes that a lurch into stage-four restrictions, heralded as a panacea by some, is the wrong policy prescription.
To go to a particular model of lockdown that worked for one country at one point in time is not the solution,” he said. “It may well be that its an awful impost on the economy and on peoples lives with no material benefit if we go to a New Zealand-style lockdown.
New Zealand didnt have significant community transmission. They were identifying the close contacts of international travellers and it was a much, much more straightforward contact tracing process, as it was in Victoria through the first phase.
I wouldnt make assumptions that a harder, more constrained lockdown is necessarily the way to go.
What is the way to go? In the depths of its COVID winter, Victoria is without a clear answer.
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Chip Le Grand is The Ages chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.