Frustration at how slowly we’re moving, but run of zeros mutes criticism

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While the world is transfixed by seismic political events in America, Victoria has reached a place in its struggle against COVID-19 which, on any other day, would have commanded international attention.

After nine straight days of no new cases and the suppression of the state's active viral footprint to just four confirmed infections, Victoria has entered what Premier Daniel Andrews describes as a new phase – a post-lockdown resumption of social and economic freedoms both fragile and, potentially, sustainable for as long as the pandemic rages.

No more colour purple: Premier Daniel Andrews announces a ”new phase” in Victoria’s COVID response.Credit:Nine News

Lest anyone miss the significance of this, the Premier’s announcement on Sunday of further lifting of restrictions was replete with symbolism: a change in backdrop colour and slogan, the lifting of Victoria’s state of disaster, the reunification of city and state, and the dismantling of the government’s crisis council of cabinet adopted at the start of the pandemic.

According to the change in slogan and livery, we’ve gone from staying apart to staying safe and open, and our mood has lightened from deepest purple to white. Like a political winner awaiting the last votes to be counted, Mr Andrews has not quite declared victory but he is promising one is on the way.

“A COVID-normal Christmas, we are going to be able to deliver that, we are going to be able to enjoy it.’’

The lifting of the state of disaster, the end of the crisis council of cabinet – a regular hook-up between the Premier and seven senior ministers responsible for different aspects of COVID policy – and a return to something resembling normal government send a clear signal that Victoria is no longer a state in crisis.

Fundamentally, however, the government is sticking to the same abundance of caution that has characterised its policy response to the destructive second-wave epidemic caused by failures in hotel quarantine.

Despite the state having a lower level of contagion than NSW, our restaurants and cafes can serve fewer diners at a time. Cinemas and galleries are allowed to open, but with patron numbers smaller than would be attracted in normal times to the most obscure arthouse film.

If you want a big, fat wedding – Greek or otherwise – you’ll need to wait until at least November 23, when restrictions on public gatherings will lift further.

We must continue to wear masks whenever we leave our homes, even if it is to walk empty streets in suburbs with no confirmed cases or country towns that haven’t had a case in months. All this underscores the Premier’s key message that, although we have cause to feel optimistic about what lies ahead, we can’t breathe easy just yet.

“Nine days of zero is not the same as a vaccine,’’ he said. “It will be bubbling and if we let our guard down it will be back.’’

Mr Andrews says there are plenty of people around the world who would happily swap a mask for the infection rates now being confronted in the US and Europe.

There will be grumblings about the consistency of some rules and the necessity of others, and frustration at having to live under COVID restrictions when almost no one in the state is getting sick. Yet, as the focus continues to shift from what we can’t do to what we can, a once cacophonous protest from business owners, the opposition and other interests will be muted.

Such is Victoria’s recovery from our second wave, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton is being invited by European public health experts to reveal the secrets of our success. Professor Sutton said the story was less about the protracted lockdown we endured than the improvements made to testing and outbreak management since the virus got off the leash in May.

There is plenty of work still to be done on this front. The government is yet to finalise its arrangements for quarantining returned travellers once international flights resume into Melbourne. Had it got this right six months ago, a second wave may have never arrived on our shores.

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