Covid-19 outbreak in Melbourne could be slowed by ‘ring-fencing’ – expert

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Virus hotspot suburbs should be “ring-fenced” to stop people entering and leaving to slow a resurgence of the new coronavirus in Melbourne, an epidemiologist says.

Medical staff perform a Covid-19 test at a drive-through testing site in a Melbourne carpark on 1 May.

Photo: AFP

UNSW epidemiology professor Mary-Louise McLaws, who is advising the World Health Organisation on its Covid-19 response, said the Victorian Government must act “very rapidly” to give such local lockdowns a chance of success.

Premier Daniel Andrews is considering reintroducing restrictions, including stay-at-home orders, in local hotspots as the state deals with a resurgence in Covid-19 cases.

The cases are mostly concentrated in 10 suburbs in the city’s north, west and south-east.

Prof McLaws said it was possible for Australia to replicate China’s success at containing the virus by locking down hotspot areas while easing restrictions elsewhere.

That strategy – which would involve ordering people not to leave designated zones without special exemptions – also proved effective during the 2003 SARS outbreak in China, she said.

Earlier this month, lockdown measures were reimposed in parts of Beijing after an outbreak linked to a seafood supermarket. Lockdowns of specific provinces and residential compounds have also been used in other parts of the country.

“They [China] put in place the ring-fencing of cities, but have then instigated ring-fencing in hotspots within cities, and the success of that emboldens my idea that this could be the way to go,” Prof McLaws said.

But she said the effectiveness of any local lockdowns in Melbourne would not be obvious for about 14 days because of the virus’s incubation period.

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“So now is the time to act, and to act very rapidly.”

The strategy would need to be combined with a testing blitz – which is currently underway in hotspot suburbs – and could be even more effective if people wore face masks when physical distancing wasn’t possible, Prof McLaws said.

“With the new masks now, it can afford up to 70 percent protection [against infecting others], and it’s very cheap,” she said.

Suburban lockdowns would include stay-at-home rules

The State Government has not spelled out how localised lockdowns or restrictions would work, or whether they would apply to individual suburbs, postcode zones or entire council areas.

Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said the government was considering all options as it expected the outbreak to get “worse before it gets better”.

But it was a “balancing act” to manage community fatigue and not to “drive people out of suburban areas into new unaffected areas”, Prof Sutton said.

He said localised restrictions, if implemented, would include stay-at-home orders.

“It would be part of the new rule, to stay at home, that people would stay in their place of residence,” he said.

“But it would be a significant logistical exercise to manage a stay-at-home [order] that is just about particular postcodes, particular suburbs or local government areas, so we have to think about all of those challenges.”

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Local lockdowns ‘will not work’, says mayor

Darebin, along with eight other inner Melbourne councils, has also written to the state and federal governments requesting a ramped-up education campaign for multicultural communities.

“Our non-English speaking background communities are struggling with the challenges of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and limited up-to-date information in their respective languages,” a letter from the nine mayors says.

“We don’t believe the message is getting out there.”

Stonnington Mayor Steve Stefanopoulos, one of the letter’s signatories, said targeted education would be more effective than localised lockdowns.

“Our local communities do not support lockdown in local community areas – it will not work,” he said.

“There are no hard boundaries between municipalities – people don’t see municipal boundaries.

“But really it’s about education … we need to ensure that all our community are getting the most up-to-date information in their own language so they can understand what is happening on a day-to-day basis.”

While Stonnington is not among the six municipalities to be declared coronavirus hotspots, there have been infections recorded in the area in recent weeks.


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