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Local News - Victoria

Melbourne’s best-in-nation social distancing crushed the virus


Victoria has recorded 55 new cases in the last seven days – fewer than NSW, which has recorded 61. However, almost half of NSW’s cases were from overseas travellers. All of Victoria’s cases are local.

While Victoria’s caseload was similar, Professor McCaw cautioned there was less “confidence” in local data than in NSW’s figures, which have been low for a long time.

Waiting to stabilise numbers while also making gradual changes to observe their impact remained the sensible approach, “even if I think a little more could have been announced today”, he said.

Professor McCaw’s Doherty Institute-led team has found only minor breaches of Victoria’s many restrictions in the past month of a lockdown that has lasted more than 100 days.

“There has been a very, very gentle, slight decline in compliance with the 1.5-metre rule and things like that over the last month. It’s marginal,” he said. “There are signs of a bit of lockdown fatigue. That may also be that the weather is nicer.”

Professor McCaw said Premier Daniel Andrews’ move on Sunday to ease some lockdown restrictions while keeping hospitality closed for at least another week was “a rational and principled approach. It is just an incredibly cautious one.”

After the state’s fifth day with fewer than 10 new cases, Mr Andrews on Sunday moved to expand Melburnians’ travel bubble to 25 kilometres and allow up to 10 people to gather outside.

Writing in The Age, Professor Catherine Bennett and a team of epidemiologists argue there was no justification for maintaining a 25-kilometre travel limit, maintaining that improved contact tracing removes “the need for hard borders or limits on movement”.

Other experts agreed the 25-kilometre limit served little purpose. “I don’t see any real strong reason for a limit at all,” said Professor McCaw.

Associate Professor Hassan Vally from La Trobe University said the rule did not directly stop the virus spreading.

“What spreads the virus is people coming into contact with each other. If people follow the rules, you could say maybe we don’t need that sort of travel restriction.”

Hospitality will have to wait at least another week before it can reopen – a decision that drew furious outcry from a disappointed business lobby.

Mr Andrews said all the decisions were based on public health advice.

“The science is driving us,” he said.

But epidemiologists told The Age the science offered no clear rules on what restrictions should be eased first. “There is no right answer to any of this,” said Professor Vally.

Restaurants, cafes and retail pose much greater risks because they often involve people spending prolonged time indoors, experts say.

The virus spreads about 20 times more easily inside and super-spreader events happen almost-exclusively indoors.

Professor Vally said restrictions could have been eased further.

“I personally think we can afford to come out a bit quicker than this. What we have seen in the last few days, one or two cases, I see no reason why that won’t continue throughout the week. And the people who tested positive today, they probably got infected about a week ago. They could have released the shackles a bit more.”

NSW’s restrictions remain far less onerous than Victoria’s.

The state allows up to 20 people to visit a home. Restaurants and pubs are open, with the NSW government on Friday easing capacity limits even further.

Outdoor events can have up to 500 people. The state recently opened up its borders to tourists from New Zealand for the first time.

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Hospitals told to crack down on staff distancing in COVID-19 fight


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“If the government is serious about getting out of this they need to focus their attention on the vulnerable parts of the pandemic,” said Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah, an infectious diseases physician who has been campaigning for health worker safety.

“This virus exploits vulnerability. It will seek out the weakest points in your society.”

Health and aged care worker infections have fallen from a weekly high of 647 new cases to 191 in the week ending August 29, but there are still more than 1100 active cases linked to the sectors.

The Australian Medical Association’s Victorian president Julian Rait said morale among his members had improved but there was concern among doctors in training, who were most likely to be working with larger numbers of patients.

“We are very much anxious about their wellbeing and trying to address it,” he said.

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Associate Professor Rait, who sits on the healthcare worker infection prevention taskforce, said he would like to see infection control protocols expedited wherever possible.

And he said fit-testing of high-grade N95 masks would be made mandatory, with hospital management contacted on Friday following weeks of agitation by the AMA and healthcare workers concerned that ill-fitting masks were exposing them to the virus.

He said emergency doctors had been encouraged to spend more time working at individual sites, rather than moving across multiple hospitals.

Professor Jodie McVernon, the director of epidemiology at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, said more information needed to be given to the public about what was happening in high-risk settings, including aged care.

Premier Daniel Andrews said on Monday that a hypothetical “ring fence” had been placed around aged care in Victoria, where active cases dropped from 1225 to 873 in a week.

“We haven’t got people working in multiple sites,” he said.

“We’ve got [personal protective equipment] compliance at the highest level [that] it’s ever been.”

He said visits were being made to every private aged care facility in the state to assess their underlying risks, a step demanded by the AMA in July.

Surveillance testing for workers caring for COVID-19 patients will be offered to those in wards where more than 25 per cent of patients have the disease.

“Testing is voluntary, will be undertaken weekly and conducted for all staff working in the COVID-19 wards regardless of whether they are symptomatic at the time of testing,” the taskforce circular said.

Hospitals will have to complete assessments of their facilities against physical distancing standards by September 18.

The Health Department has also commissioned work to find out where infectious particles may settle in hospitals, creating dangerous hotspots.

At least 3107 healthcare workers have tested positive for coronavirus during the pandemic, a statistic Dr Ananda-Rajah blamed on inadequate protective equipment and training. She said these issues were even more pronounced among aged care workers, many of whom were casually employed and from migrant backgrounds.

“At the moment we have these loose-fitting gowns. There is a lot of skin that is still exposed,” she said. “We don’t have tight-fitting goggles and they are a really flimsy plastic.”

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Townsville Supercars double-header sparks renewed coronavirus social distancing advice


Supercars has announced that this month’s highly anticipated Townsville 400 will be followed by a second event the following weekend.

Within three weeks Townsville will host the motor races, a major boxing event featuring Jeff Horn and Tim Tszyu and an NRL game.

In announcing the Supercars double header, a State Government spokesperson revealed that up to 8,500 spectators would be permitted at each race day on the weekends of August 29–30 and September 5–6.

The numbers are like recent crowds at games hosted by the North Queensland Cowboys, with the club playing the Canberra Raiders in front of 7,586 people in Round 12.

Social distancing ‘impossible’

Townsville GP Michael Clements has raised concerns about the risk of coronavirus at the upcoming Supercars event.

“As a doctor, I’m nervous about more than 8,000 people and social distancing,” he told ABC radio presenter Michael Clarke.

Crowds of people in supporter gear sit on a hill overlooking the Townsville 400 racetrack.
Up to 8,500 spectators will be allowed to attend each race in Townsville.(ABC North Queensland: Nathalie Fernbach)

Dr Clements said he hoped strict procedures would lower the COVID-19 risk.

“If people are coming from within Queensland where we’ve got no community transmission right now, or if they’ve come from interstate and they follow the quarantine rules, then that is a level of reassurance,” he said.

“As long as we keep to the rules of quarantine for people coming interstate — and people do their best and get tested if they’re sick then I’ll be a bit more relaxed.”

‘Right to feel nervous’ ahead of events

Member for Townsville Scott Stewart reassured listeners on ABC North Queensland that the Supercars event would be properly managed.

“I think everyone has the right to feel a little bit nervous when we’re talking about large crowds coming together,” Mr Stewart said.

“The NRL and the AFL have put together a very comprehensive plan to manage their COVID situation, and that was approved by the Chief Health Officer, and the Supercars have done the same thing.

Mr Stewart warned that spectators would need to be mindful of social distancing following a lack of compliance in the city.

“We did become complacent, but we need to make sure every single day we’re doing those things that we need to do to keep each other safe.”

In a statement, Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill said she had no COVID-19 related concerns regarding the Supercars event.

“Supercars continue to act on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and Queensland Health to ensure the event is as safe as possible,” she said.

“If council had any doubts about the safety of the event, we would not support it.”

A smiling man on a race track in front of two race cars.
Townsville Supercars event manager Sam Pearce interaction says between teams and crowds would be off-limits.(ABC North Queensland: Chloe Chomicki)

Annual event to look different

Townsville event manager Sam Pearce explained that strict plans were in place to minimise the risk of COVID-19.

“Our teams have been away from home for a very long time already,” he said.

“They’ve been isolating in South East Queensland, and they’re on their way up to Darwin.

“We’ve been working very hard with the Townsville Public Health Unit on what’s required.

“We’ve set up different zones, keeping everyone in their own zones, and not allowing that interaction that has usually happened between the teams and the punters.”

Mr Pearce said the Reid Park paddock would be closed this year.

“At the moment, there is no requirement for people to be seated, we expect people to be seated for most of the time anyway.”



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Sunshine Coast Stadium to reduce crowds amid concerns over lack of social distancing at NRL game


Crowd numbers could be further reduced at the Melbourne Storm’s next home game on the Sunshine Coast amid concerns over a disregard for coronavirus social distancing rules.

Images of thousands of fans crowded on the eastern hill at yesterday’s game sparked criticism online, prompting Melbourne Storm officials to request a review of crowd management practices and capacity at the venue.

Just under 5,500 people attended the Storm, Newcastle Knights clash yesterday afternoon at Sunshine Coast Stadium.

Sunshine Coast Council said the stadium made significant changes ahead of the match including increased security, volunteers, police and staff.

Manager for Sport and Community Venues Grantley Switzer said the group will meet with Queensland Health this morning to address the issue.

“It does appear that we do have an issue over on that eastern hill which we will look to address in the next 24 hours,” Mr Switzer said.

“Unfortunately what you see on TV is that camera angle looking right at that eastern hill. If you looked at the south and north end there was some good social distancing.

“We’ve already taken some measures to reduce the numbers but I think the only solution is to have less people on that hill.”

Mr Switzer said people were understandably concerned.

“I think what we’ve seen is a heightened awareness around social distancing with what has occurred in Victoria and few cases of community transmission within Queensland,” he said.

Lots of people sitting together in a crowd at a football stadium
NRL crowd numbers could be further reduced after concerns were raised about this game.(Supplied)

Sunshine Coast Council announced overnight that crowd numbers have been lowered and no further tickets will be put on sale for the Melbourne Storm, Canterbury Bulldogs match on August 8.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk thanked the NRL for taking swift action.

“We don’t want to see large crowds gathering and not social distancing. The majority were seated, not moving around, but having said that I want to commend the NRL for taking that very swift action and letting my office know that they will be reducing the numbers by 1,000,” she said.

The venue’s COVID Safe Plan allows 6,000 fans at the venue, which makes up 50 per cent of its capacity.

That figure has since been revised down to 5,000 as a “precautionary measure”.

“The COVID safe plan does talk about how we have people into zones and how people should social distance,” Mr Switzer said.

“We have got certain zones in terms of the hill, but there is an onus there that people who come in in their family groups, they can sit together and we do encourage people to maintain that 1.5 metres of social distancing.”

Council said any future home games would need to be negotiated with the NRL and Queensland Health.

The Melbourne Storm would not comment further on the matter but confirmed in a statement it had asked the stadium to review its capacity.



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Watsons Bay Hotel fined for social distancing breach


Sydney’s iconic Watsons Bay Hotel has copped a hefty fine after it was caught not following social distancing rules properly.

The eastern suburbs pub was hit with a $5000 infringement after authorities conducted a spot check and noticed it had failed to create a safe environment for customers on Friday night.

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Patrons were standing and drinking and gaming machines were not spaced out, according to Liquor and Gaming NSW.

Undercover officers attended the hotel on July 31 and observed that all gaming machines were operational — meaning there was no way there could be 1.5m between gaming machines.

This was contrary to the venue’s COVID Safety Plan, which stated “every second machine has been disabled in the gaming room”.

Patrons were also sighted seated less than 1.5m apart.

Acting Director of Compliance for Liquor and Gaming NSW Dimitri Argeres said 15 venues had been fined in the past three weeks.

“While most venues are making serious efforts to comply with all the conditions, it’s disappointing that some are simply not getting the message,” Mr Argeres said.

“Flouting these measures is not only bad for the health and safety of patrons; it’s also bad for business.”

It’s not the only place struggling to adhere to social distancing; yesterday images emerged of packed trains and platforms at Town Hall station.

One image showed a carriage of passengers crammed together on a service to Bondi Junction — an area near Potts Point, a COVID-19 hotspot.



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Local News - Victoria

State’s social distancing ‘best in Australia’ when second surge hit


“Putting aside the actual outbreak, Victoria is a place where the virus is less able to spread than NSW, Sydney, South Australia, Western Australia,” said Professor McCaw.

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“What it says is an unlucky, random event has led to dramatic consequences in Victoria of an enormous outbreak. It has probably restarted from one or two or a very small number of infections.”

In a second stroke of bad luck, those first infections hit “disadvantaged … high-density, vulnerable populations”, which allowed it to spread faster than it otherwise would, Professor McCaw said.

The state government has already admitted “a number of” cases in late May and early June are linked to a hotel quarantine breach. An official inquiry into hotel quarantine opens on Monday.

“A judicial inquiry has been established at arm’s length from government to examine issues relating to hotel quarantine – our focus remains on containing this virus,” a government spokeswoman said.

The report by Professor McCaw’s team, focusing on the period between early June and July 1, uses data from Apple, Facebook and Google and population surveys to estimate how much people are moving around and seeing other people.

It then estimates the state’s effective reproduction number (R) – the average number of people each infected person would pass the virus to if the virus was circulating. The report is handed each week to state and federal chief health officers.

On July 1, as Victoria’s outbreak was gathering pace, the state’s estimated effective reproduction number was just 0.92 – the best in the nation.

The average Victorian was seeing only 5.9 people outside the house per day. In NSW, that number was 8.1; in the Northern Territory it had climbed to 11.5.

Deakin University’s chair in epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett said: “Victoria was the best in the country at the peak of the first wave. We’re still the best in the country on July 1. It’s important that Victorians are acknowledged for that. It’s a win, but it’s not enough.

“The potential for spread is greater in NSW than Victoria. If this scenario had happened in NSW rather than Victoria, we might be in a worse position than where we are now.”

Professor McCaw said internal government data shows the state’s effective reproduction number has been steadily trending downwards since the start of the second surge and now hovers about 1.3.

Efforts to bring it below one – when the epidemic would start to shrink – had not yet been successful, explaining why Premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday made mask wearing compulsory.

“The epidemic is still growing. But it is growing more slowly, and that’s a good thing,” said Professor McCaw.

“Right now, we really are on that knife-edge. If R stays at 1.3, there will be a significant escalation of numbers per day in the coming weeks.”

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton said on Sunday the state’s R-rate had gone from about 2.5 a month ago to “close to one”.

Health authorities are working to keep the number below one, but Professor Sutton said he was not relaxing.

“We haven’t calculated in the last couple of days, but it was pretty much sitting on ones,” he said.

“I won’t sit back and relax even if the rate is calculated below one. We need to watch the numbers to see what is actually happening.”

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The bottom just fell out of social distancing in Victoria


What else are we to infer when we see a large-scale gathering conducted with impunity, albeit gestures towards social distancing that did little in such a congested area? On the other hand, we see rather small-scale activities, you might say easier targets, banned with the big stick of fines. Too
many people at Rye Pier. Really?

Visitors to Rye Pier before the coronavirus crisis.

Visitors to Rye Pier before the coronavirus crisis. Credit:Chris Hopkins

We will only know the true extent of the consequences of the protest over the next couple of weeks, but the damage has already been done. And that damage is to public confidence in the health and economic response.

Let’s remember that the powers of the Health Minister and Chief Health Officer under the Public
Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 to impose far-reaching restrictions on the way we live, are
enormous.

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Not only are those powers profound, but there is little anyone can do to test whether the justification for those powers exists other than to, say, initiate action in the Supreme Court of Victoria. Don’t be surprised if that scenario materialises sometime soon.

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In recent weeks and months, I have been generally supportive of the government’s health response with some misgivings. But the events of recent days left me concerned that some people were getting a leave pass and being excused from service in a common cause we have all been asked to make sacrifices to uphold.

I should say at this point that whether you agree with the protests or not is beside the point. We need to do much more to address Indigenous disadvantage and most Australians want to see more done to close the gap, reduce Indigenous incarceration rates and generally make massive improvements in life outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

But this can’t be the basis for enforcement of the state of emergency.

The government should have done at least two things last week. First, it should have tried to defend, as far as it could, the basis for the state of emergency and restrictions made under it by the Chief Health Officer and his deputies by going to the Supreme Court and seeking an injunction. True, it may not have stopped the protest itself, but it would have signalled a commitment to the justification for restrictions that all of us have been required to bear at an inestimable cost.

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The second thing it should have done was make it clear through Victoria Police that as many people
who could practicably be fined for breaching social distancing requirements would be. Again, it is
obvious that Victoria Police would not be able to fine everybody in attendance at the protest.
But the message it sent out last week that only the organisers effectively would be fined creates
enormous problems.

This does not just relate to public confidence in the way Victoria Police is exercising its discretion. It may go to whether other people, exercising their freedoms in their own way, such as by re-opening businesses, can assert that fining them is discriminatory. A broad policy that it will not fine certain forms of activities, such as mass protests, may expose it not just to criticism, but potentially legal action that it is applying its discretionary policy in a discriminatory way.

It is not inconceivable that a person could argue that Victoria Police’s policy potentially breaches its obligations under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006. Even if its policy on fines is not discriminatory, it certainly is unfair.

Remember, it’s not about whether you agree with the protests. We all have the prerogative of exercising our basic freedoms in different ways. Someone’s right to exercise that freedom in pursuit of recreational interests or work is not inferior to the right of someone else who wishes to exercise that right to protest. Both are subject to the law and should not be treated differently under social distancing. But last weekend, they were.

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As a community, we have generally submitted to momentous encumbrances on our basic rights and freedoms. We have accepted these impositions in the cause of a common effort to overcome a deadly pandemic. It’s important that the government and it senior health officers show we are all bound in the same way.

John Pesutto is a senior fellow at the School of Government at Melbourne University, and was Victoria’s shadow attorney-general from 2014 to 2018.

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Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Melbourne warned to abide by coronavirus social distancing rules


“It would indeed be a tragedy if people of good faith and intent coming together to give voice to protest were to give way to the elderly and most vulnerable in our community to be exposed to coronavirus,” he said on Wednesday morning.

Rally organisers Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance are encouraging attendees to stay at least 1.5 metres away from each other, and to bring face masks and hand sanitiser.

With a big crowd expected, Tarneen Onus-Williams from WAR conceded it would be difficult for people to maintain social distancing.

“When you’re in that moment and you’re on the streets, all us Blackfullas are thinking about is our families and our community that are dying because of the police,” she said.

“This is one of the ways we can get our voices heard, so I think people might not social distance. But that’s what we’re encouraging people to do.”

Those who are unwell, or exhibiting flu-like symptoms, are being told to stay home. Ms Onus-Williams encouraged those who wanted to attend but couldn’t to donate to grassroots organisations.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews warned violence would not be tolerated at the Melbourne rally.

“If it’s not peaceful then it is not a protest, it is something very different,” Mr Andrews said.

“The only form of legitimate protest is a peaceful protest and Victoria Police will not tolerate violence they will not tolerate some of the disorder what we’ve seen overseas.”

Police had made a decision not to issue protesters with fines for breaching social distancing, as they did not believe it was feasible to fine thousands of people at a rally, he said.

Assistant Commissioner Cornelius also said violence would not be tolerated, but said those breaking social distancing rules could be held in breach of the chief health officer’s directions.

“We do respect the right that everyone has to protest peacefully and lawfully, but we must ask people to pay particular regards to CHO directions,” he said.

“Counter protest movements may be planned (for Saturday) … We are very much alive to this possibility, and it is being factored into our planning.”

He said there would be “careful consideration” of the disposition of officers on the day, but would not give details of police tactics planned for the protest.

On Tuesday night, more than 1000 people marched from Sydney’s Hyde Park to the NSW Parliament and the US embassy in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said on Wednesday she hoped legislation to abolish the offence of public drunkenness would be introduced by the end of the year, according to Nine News.

The initial announcement to decriminalise public drunkenness was made in August last year, following the death of 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day in police custody in Castlemaine.

Ms Day was asleep on a train from Bendigo to Melbourne when she was arrested under the law on December 5, 2017. That night, she fell and hit her head in the cells of the Castlemaine police station and died in hospital from a brain haemorrhage less than three weeks later.

Victoria and Queensland are the only states that still have a specific offence of public drunkenness, a charge that a royal commission found disproportionately affected Aboriginal people.

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State authorities close parks over distancing fears


Shopping centres, supermarkets, public transport and other public infrastructure that may attract dense crowds remain open provided visitors adhere to social distancing and have a lawful reason for making the trip.

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Parks Victoria did not explain why these particular attractions were singled out but reminded potential visitors to use good judgement and consider heading to alternative destinations if parks are busy.

“Remember to stay safe by maintaining good hygiene, keep your distance from others and if you feel unwell stay home,” their statement said.

The 1000 steps was previously open but restricted to a singular direction to maintain physical distancing.

Buchan Caves Reserve, William Ricketts Sanctuary, Lower Glenelg National Park, Point Nepean National Park, Serendip Sanctuary, St Kilda Pier, State Coal Mine, the Twelve Apostles and Werribee Park all remain closed.

Victoria Police have begun to close roads that lead to some of the parks that were previously open.

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Trinity College students sent home for breaching social distancing rules


Twenty-four University of Melbourne students have been ordered to leave campus for breaching social distancing rules.

The students, residents of Trinity College, were told to pack their bags after an unauthorised gathering on Monday, which broke government and college-mandated physical distancing rules.

Students at a University of Melbourne residential college have been ordered off campus for breaking distancing rules.

Students at a University of Melbourne residential college have been ordered off campus for breaking distancing rules. Credit:Joe Armao

In a statement, Trinity College warden Professor Ken Hinchcliff said that students knew the rules, and that adhering to them was a condition of living on campus.

“I am disappointed that some of our students did not observe the rules that are currently in place,” Professor Hinchcliff said.



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