Uncertainty surrounding the end of Melbourne’s coronavirus lockdown is destroying business confidence in a range of sectors and having a detrimental impact on the mental health of a growing number of Victorians.
A leading economist has joined the property industry, the state’s peak lawyers’ group, one of the nation’s largest grocery retailers, psychiatrists and doctors in pleading for certainty as Premier Daniel Andrews prepares to announce the easing of some restrictions on Sunday.
The pleas came as the federal government reapplied pressure to Mr Andrews on Wednesday with the Treasurer, Health Minister and Prime Minister all calling for the state to immediately adopt a NSW-style approach to containing the virus, which involved keeping the economy relatively open and taking an aggressive approach to COVID-19 outbreaks when they arise.
Victoria confirmed seven new cases and five more lives had been lost to COVID-19 on Wednesday as health authorities battled to contain a fresh outbreak in the regional city of Shepparton, where three people tested positive on Tuesday.
NSW, which still maintains a closed border with Victoria and allows most businesses to remain open with patronage limits and COVID-safe plans, recorded 12 new locally acquired cases on Wednesday.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg cited Commonwealth Health Department figures showing a sharp spike in numbers of Victorians seeking help for their mental health in September and October, describing the numbers as “heartbreaking”.
“My message again today and every day to the Premier of Victoria is please understand the impact that the lockdown and these harsh restrictions are having on people’s mental health,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said.
“Please give the people of Victoria their freedom back this weekend.”
Mr Andrews has signalled that it may be necessary to open up Victoria’s economy before his preferred threshold, a rolling 14-day average of five new cases per day or less, had been reached. The Premier acknowledged the harms of the strict lockdown could eventually outweigh the benefit it provided in minimising the risk of a third wave.
“At some point, the cost of the restrictions will be greater than the increased risk and the increased challenge for our public health team to keep the virus suppressed if we open earlier than we had planned,” Mr Andrews told his daily press briefing.
But in a report to State Parliament tabled on Wednesday and in its advice to the house on the latest extension of its pandemic state of emergency, the government said the risk of an “uncontrolled” third wave of COVID-19 infections remained present.
“Even at low case numbers, any reservoir of infection in the community could lead to an uncontrolled and amplified spread,” the report reads.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said that with a 14-day average of 9.6 locally acquired cases, Melbourne had already met a new caseload threshold drawn up by his department of a 14-day average of 10 new locally acquired cases for metropolitan areas to come out of lockdown. Across Victoria, the 14-day average was 10.1 cases on Wednesday.
“NSW was able to operate at a greater than 10-case rolling average for 24 days, during the latter part of July and the early part of August,” Mr Hunt said.
Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has consistently rejected comparisons with NSW, saying the current nature of pandemics in each of the states was fundamentally different.
The latest ANZ/Property Council of Australia’s industry confidence survey found property industry confidence in Victoria was the lowest in the nation at 64 index points for the December 2020 quarter – below the national average of 82 index points. A score of 100 is considered neutral. Victoria’s historical average is 123 index points.
The Property Council’s Victorian executive director, Cressida Wall, said her sector was also desperate for a clear road out of lockdown and the return of workers to Melbourne’s city centre.
“Business needs certainty to be able to operate with confidence,” Ms Wall said.
“The state government’s road map to recovery supported construction sector confidence; the next step is a clear plan to get workers back in offices and back in the CBD.”
Leading Melbourne economist Terry Rawnsley, of SGS Economics, said businesses across a range of sectors were struggling with the uncertainty about when the lockdown would end and had already had to push back vital decisions on the future of their firms.
“That’s particularly the case for that retail or food services sector who are so dependent on that end-of-year Christmas party, Christmas gift period, it can keep them through the whole year.”
“It will have serious implications for business if we get to November or December and we still no have no clarity of what normalcy looks like.”
The chief executive of supermarket giant Coles, Steven Cain, joined the federal MPs in publicly backing a NSW-style approach to managing the COVID-19 crisis in Victoria, saying that reopening the economy with low but well-managed case numbers would be the “best of both worlds” to balance economic and health concerns.
Mr Cain said that while he admired the work done in Victoria to suppress the second wave, states such as NSW had done a “very good job” at managing the virus while still keeping things open.
“If we can do as good a job as NSW appears to be doing over a longer period of time, then that appears to be the best of both worlds,” Mr Cain said.
“The virus is contained, the vulnerable are protected but more business is able to be done.”
A spokesperson for the Law Institute of Victoria said a lot of progress had been made to keep courts functioning during the lockdown, but urged the government to allow law offices and courts to reopen.
“Some vulnerable people need to see their lawyers for advice on personal, sensitive or confidential matters,” the spokesperson said.
“We have advocated that on-site attendance at offices be allowed for lawyers and clients, with COVID-safe protections, in circumstances where they might be at risk, or are unable to access audiovisual equipment or files.”
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners spokeswoman Dr Cathy Andronis said while she supported the current restrictions, they were having serious mental health implications.
She said there had been a 20 per cent increase in mental health presentations at her Richmond clinic. Isolated older people and young women were fuelling this increase.
“Huge numbers of people are incredibly stressed,” she said.
Australian Association of Psychologists board director Betty Chetcuti said Victorian psychologists had reported up to a 30 per cent increase in patients since the pandemic.
She said people were suffering from anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, loneliness and relationship troubles.
“People are struggling to deal with all the unknowns and adjustments. It’s really confronting.”
An open letter to Mr Andrews led by a group of senior doctors, which has attracted hundreds of signatures, argues Victoria’s response to containing COVID-19 is causing severe harm, triggering a tsunami of mental illness and worrying decline in presentations for life-threatening medical conditions like cancer and heart attacks.