Rethink easing of restrictions: GPs

Australian GPs have called on states and territories to rethink easing COVID-19 restrictions, quoting Victoria’s spike in infections as an example of what can go wrong if basic guidelines are flouted.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) says similar outbreaks could easily occur if states and territories continue to lift restrictions before Victoria re-flattens the curve.

AMA president Tony Bartone said the new cases revealed in Victoria over the weekend are a “stark reminder” that the pandemic is not yet over.

“These new outbreaks send a strong signal that the other states should rethink the pace of easing of their COVID-19 restrictions until community transmission in Melbourne is under control to avoid the risk of a similar situation playing out in their own communities,” he said.

“Before rushing back to the pub, the footy crowds, or the big weddings and parties, Australia should pause and play it safe until the Melbourne hotspots are back under control.”

His comments follow further dramatic lockdowns that took place in Melbourne over the weekend. A spike in cases in two public housing towers led to ‘hard lockdown’ in nine public housing towers, without notice and under police guard.

More than 3000 residents of public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne cannot leave their apartments for any reason for at least five days.

The Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) said that while the lockdown of this at-risk group of people was a public health decision, given the vulnerability of many of the residents, having police coordinate and enforce the lockdowns may not have been the best idea.

“If we get this wrong, the consequences will be horrific,” said VCOSS chief Emma King.

“Last night looked a bit like a crime scene,” she said, adding that it would have been far better to have nurses, social services and community members lead the response.

Of the 94 new COVID-19 cases announced across the country on Sunday, Victoria accounted for 74. All the positive infections outside Victoria were returned travellers in hotel quarantine.

Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos says Victoria’s spike may be traced to a single ‘super spreader’.

The minister received a briefing about a genomic sequencing report last week that suggested a single source of infection for many of the cases across the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne.

“It appears to be even potentially a super spreader who has caused this upsurge in cases,” she said.

“We don’t have the full picture yet, and as [Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton] explained the other day, not all of these cases have yet been subject to genomic sequencing. We need to enable that process to be completed and to be provided to the judicial inquiry in the fullness of time.”

Victoria has now locked down 12 postcodes, with residents only able to leave for the essentials such as food, exercise, work and for care-giving purposes.

Premier Daniel Andrews says more “big numbers” are likely over the coming days, as widespread testing is carried out across the state. He also would not rule out further postcodes being locked down, if cases worsen in particular areas relative to their population size.

Dr Bartone said the problems in Melbourne’s hotspots were linked to failures to follow “established and successful” public health guidelines.

“Against the expert medical advice, we have seen a range of failures relating to family and social events not following physical distance requirements, numerous quarantine breaches, and the irresponsible actions from elite sportsmen,” he said.

“We all can and must do better. Australians should not rush back to pre-COVID ways. We have to do more to protect ourselves and each other. The virus will be with us for many months. We must all continue to follow physical distance and hygiene protections, and not become complacent.”

While other states are lifting restrictions, Victoria remains in code red, and is almost considered somewhat of a pariah by other states.

Acting chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said individual states and territories had the right to refuse entry to Victorians, and he could “see why” Victorians were being told not to come to other parts of the country.

“If you look at where particular states are with the reopening of the economy and society … I can see why they would want to keep the virus out in any way they can,” he said.

Victorians in coronavirus hotspots who cross the border into NSW risk $11,000 fines and six months in jail.

Queensland has opened to all states except Victoria and South Australia’s border also remains closed to Victorians.

The national Cabinet had previously agreed that, by July, capacity limits in venues across the country would no longer apply and would only follow the rule that there must be four square metres of space per person.

In light of Victoria’s recent spike in numbers, it is possible that decision could be reviewed.

Melbourne’s worrying outbreak adds to the world’s woes as it reached 10 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 500,000 deaths, according to a Lancet editorial.

The Lancet editor, Dr Richard Horton, said the world’s political leaders had been tested on the coronavirus and “been found wanting”.

“It’s hard to recall a more lamentable response to a global emergency,” he said.

Do you think Dr Horton’s assessment is harsh or fair? Should the government review its decision to shelve capacity restrictions in pubs and cafés?

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