I don’t know if Victorian Premier Dan Andrews is a gambler. I assume he might have a fiver on a roughie in the Melbourne Cup, or take a ticket or two in the office sweep. His very measured response to the COVID-19 crisis in his home state to date makes me think he’s not one to gamble. Certainly not when it comes to people’s lives.
Saturday 17 October marks 100 days of Melbourne’s hard lockdown. That’s more than three months of night-time curfews, home schooling, five-kilometre restrictions, no pubs, bars and restaurants and an hour (or two) for daily exercise. Like the 20 million Australians not caught up in the lockdown I’ve frankly been blown away by how disciplined and focused the people of Melbourne have been to reach the point today where there are only two new COVID cases and no new deaths. There’s a sense of collective relief, bordering on celebration (almost). This week in particular I’ve got the strongest sense yet from Melbournians that the accumulating pressure of lockdown is weighing heavily. Very heavily.
I’ve also been mightily impressed with the Premier’s response to the biggest challenge of his political career thus far (and it’s hard to imagine anything likely to rival the back-to-back bushfire catastrophe and COVID-19 pandemic). Andrews has turned up day after day to provide in-depth COVID updates, respectfully mourning the loss of so many lives, and never once shirking a question (is there any politician anywhere in the world who has ever done more than 100 marathon daily media conferences without a single day off?). No matter how you look at it, this has been an extraordinary burden of responsibility that few would relish.
No one would suggest there have not been mistakes. Many think, at times, things could have been communicated better. Some decisions, with the benefit of hindsight could have been different, better. And the game of “who is to blame?” has been a sad and destructive force that in itself deserves reflection after all this is over.
But it seems to me the Premier has somehow kept his cool under the most intense scrutiny and steadily growing community disquiet. Most importantly, every single day he’s had a health expert by his side, and to those of us on the outside, he appears to have followed their expert advice every step of the way.
When Victoria went into hard lockdown as new cases spiralled into the many hundreds towards the start of winter, Dan Andrews dangled the carrot of a COVID-free Christmas where families could gather together in a way in which they haven’t been able to since March. It was a big ask of a community which takes so much pride living in a city which is so often rated on a global scale as the world’s most liveable city. The sacrifice has been enormous and with new COVID daily cases now dropping into single digits, it appears the Premier’s punt has paid off to the extent that as of Friday, Victoria had recorded fewer new cases than NSW for the third day running.
It’s been an incredibly challenging balancing act. He’s had no shortage of advice from the Prime Minister down on how he could get the job done better. To date, Dan Andrews has chosen a slow and steady path to the finish line, wherever and whenever that might be. His critics, and there have been many, have accused him of having his blinkers on and not providing the flexibility which could have allowed Victorians the same freedoms as say their northern neighbours in New South Wales. Whether you’ve approved of the hard-line strategy, or not, it has worked in terms of saving lives, reducing that curve and giving real hope of the pressure being relieved.
This weekend, Dan Andrews faces his moment of truth. On Sunday, with those crucial numbers falling, the Premier gets a chance to reward Victoria, and the people of Melbourne in particular, for an incredible team effort. There are few places in the world have been able to suppress the pandemic in the way Melbourne has. And while there is still risk, given the sacrifice and the success to date, there must be reward. Over the next couple of days, as Dan Andrews and his expert team pour over the latest numbers, the modelling and the potential scenarios, he needs to arrive at a decision that sets a whole ‘new normal’. And that may mean setting aside that seemingly unachievable rolling daily average of fewer than five new cases a day to loosen things up.
As a nation we have all watched and waited, willing our family, friends and work colleagues to ‘stay strong’ and ‘go the distance’. The people of Melbourne have earned the right to have the shackles lifted and to get, perhaps not all, but some normality back into their lives. Just as the people have put their trust in the Premier, the government and the health experts to get them to this point, that trust should now be repaid. Starting this Sunday with a new, shared responsibility, let’s call it a community-government pact, to get Melbourne back to the sort of freedoms everyone has been hoping for.
Terry Slevin is the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, and is also Adjunct Professor in the School of Psychology at Curtin University and Adjunct Professor in the College of Health and Medicine at the Australian National University.