Victoria’s roadmap for reopening stipulates that the state’s 14-day average for new cases must fall below a certain level at each step of the way.
This graph shows where the 14-day average has been tracking since the start of August against the targets set for each stage of reopening:
Will the state meet those targets? Here's an overview of what needs to happen for the state to progress to reach each step along the way, how life will change under each step, as well as whether health authorities and leading epidemiologists think each goal is attainable.
Step one will come into effect on September 13 – the day the stage four lockdown originally would have ended. The main differences under step one will be that singles or single parents will be allowed one nominated visitor, while the nightly curfew will start one hour later at 9pm.
The path to step two
If the 14-day average gets between 30 and 50 by September 28, then Victoria will be able to move to the second stage of the state government’s roadmap for reopening.
It is currently 96, so it has to halve over the next three weeks.
The good news is that it is on its way down, having dropped below 100 for the first time in almost two months on Monday. The last time the state's 14-day average was in double-digit figures was on July 9, the day when the stage three lockdown came into effect again in Melbourne and Mitchell shire.
This graph zooms in a bit to shows how the state's 14-day average since the start of August has been tracking against the step two target:
For the state to enter the next stage of reopening, that blue line showing the 14-day average has to be somewhere within that green zone of between 30 and 50 when it reaches September 28.
If case numbers drop and the 14-day average is pushed below 50 before September 28, it won’t trigger the second stage of reopening. On the flipside, if case numbers refuse to drop and the 14-day average is above 50 on September 28, the second step will come into effect once it gets below 50.
The graphic below sets out what will change when step two comes into effect:
The last time the state's 14-day average was in this 30-50 range was on July 4. That was the day a hard lockdown was announced at nine Melbourne public housing towers and was a few days before the Melbourne region went back into lockdown.
This graphic below shows the 14-day average for the state since the start of the pandemic, and this time the shaded areas are the times when case numbers were safely within this 30-50 range:
Keep in mind, too, that until the second wave struck, there had been only about a two-week period in late March/early April that the 14-day average climbed above 50.
At Monday’s daily coronavirus update, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the state was on track to get case numbers into the window needed to move to step two.
Stephen Duckett, director of the health program at Grattan Institute, agrees:
"Today the number of cases was in that 30-50 range, so if the same thing happens over the next fortnight then we are certainly on track to move to the second step," he said.
"By and large the modelling shows the decline is going really well."
If the state clears step two, then it can move onto step three.
The path to step three
The goal for step three is twofold. First, the 14-day average has to drop below five; second, community transmission has to have been almost entirely suppressed, with fewer than five cases in total over the previous fortnight.
The date set to reach that goal is October 26. If both of those boxes are ticked, then the curfew will end, there will be no restrictions on leaving home, public gatherings outside will increase to 10, and outdoor dining will reopen at cafes and restaurants.
Here is a graphic that outlines what step three would look like:
Here is a graph that shows when the state fulfilled that first requirement of there being a 14-day average of fewer than five cases:
Victoria’s 14-day average first hit five on March 16. That’s the day the newspapers would have been running front-page stories about the winner of the Melbourne Grand Prix… had it gone ahead the day before.
This period before March 16 also fulfils the second criteria, given that until that point there had been a total of 71 confirmed coronavirus cases in Victoria, and of those only two were from community transmission.
Since then there was a single day – May 2 – where the 14-day average dropped below five, based on analysis by The Age. May 2 appears to fail the second criteria, however, since in the two weeks leading up to it the had been a net increase of five new cases from community transmission.
On Sunday, Professor Sutton said the target of a 14-day average of five cases per day by that date, and none of those cases being from unknown transmission sources, was achievable.
But Dr Duckett is less confident. "Getting to five is going to be a tough call," he said. "We seem to be in a situation where the virus is dropping down in a sort of linear way, so it's not impossible we will be at less than 10 by then. We may be at less than five."
Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett said the tail of the epidemic – when numbers have started to drop – was uncertain and unpredictable, which meant it was difficult to predict whether the 14-day average would reach the targets set for the state to reopen at each step of the way.
Professor Bennett said a single outbreak in the two weeks before the end of October could make the target unattainable, but noted health authorities would be able to factor any isolated occurrences into their decision making.
Professor Jodie McVernon, the director of epidemiology at Melbourne's Doherty Institute, also said this goal could be difficult to reach.
She said it would be a completely different scenario if there were five mystery cases verus five quarantined cases linked to a known case of a healthcare worker, for example.
“I think getting down to an average of five cases over 14 days, I think that is a very stringent target,” Professor McVernon said.
“I would really be expecting that we will have a much more nuanced discussion about it and those numbers are a goal.”
Questioned on the achievability of that goal, Professor Sutton revealed on Monday that health officials would likely continue on the path to reopening, even if a handful of cases continued to be detected.
"Whenever you see jurisdictions that are in the ones and twos that have days of zeros and they've got international travel closed off, then they almost invariably get to the point of zero transmission," he said.
"So if we're there, it'll be pretty clear that we can take the next step.
"If we have very low numbers and they are stubborn and persistent and we cannot get rid of it otherwise, but we can keep them under control, then we'll carry on with that strategy."
The last step and beyond
It probably seems like a long way off, but the final step will be reached if there are no new cases over 14 days to November 23.
Professor McVernon said requiring zero cases for a fortnight would be difficult to achieve and was heartened by the notion that it did not appear to be a hard target.
“If they were, I would be very concerned that we might never reach them,” Professor McVernon said, pointing to New Zealand, where there had been resurgent low numbers of cases.
Here is what will change if Victoria moves to its last step on November 23:
After that, there is COVID normal, which is how things would continue until a viable vaccine has been manufactured and a sufficient proportion of the population receives it:
With Aisha Dow
Note: I was hoping to be able to plot the 14-day average data for Melbourne and rural/regional Victoria against the reopening timeline today but ran out of time. I will try to make these graphs tomorrow.
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