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

The extraordinary compliance of Melburnians has crushed the city's COVID-19 epidemic, leading to calls from epidemiologists for authorities to trust people enough to remove restrictions a little faster.

Professor James McCaw, one of the scientists charged with tracking Melbourne’s social distancing for the federal government, said only now has the city’s resolve to stick to the rules begun to waver.

“Victorians are the most compliant with the rules, of anywhere in Australia. Our rules are the toughest and we’re the most compliant,” he said.

Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor James McCaw. “Our rules are the toughest and we’re the most compliant.”Credit:

Writing in The Age, Professor Catherine Bennett and a team of epidemiologists argue restrictions on retail could be lifted given the low number of cases. There wis no justification for maintaining a 25-kilometre travel limit, they say.

"Delaying the reopening of some industry, business and hospitality seems very conservative," they write.

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, an epidemiologist based at La Trobe University, said the rule itself did not directly stop the virus spreading.

"The philosophy behind it is movement is not good. Movement is a proxy for spreading the virus," he said.

"But 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."

However, scientists did not back calls from the state Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien to give Victorians the same freedoms enjoyed in New South Wales, where daily case numbers have been higher in the past week.

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 sensible decision, if extremely cautious.

"It is 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.

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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