A SINGLE active case, that has spread from The Butcher Club cluster, out of the Chadstone Shopping Centre, to the Mitchell Shire in regional Victoria today may have just scuttled the chances of restrictions being eased in country areas ahead of schedule.

The new case shifted the 14-day rolling average in regional Victoria up from 0.1 to 0.2 but it was enough for the Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton to reaffirm that the regional restrictions would stay where they are.

On Sunday, October 4, there were 241 active cases of #COVID-19 in Victoria, three in regional Victoria, including 1 Colac-Otway, 1 East Gippsland and now 1 Mitchell Shire, 40km north of Melbourne.

However, locals in Bairnsdale say the ‘East Gippsland’ case has been incorrectly attributed to the area when the person resides in Melbourne.

Local MPs and regional business operators, especially those in the hospitality, have been crying out for an easing of restrictions and their calls that have been taken up by local MPs.

Leader of The Nationals and Shadow Minister for Regional Victoria and Decentralisation Peter Walsh said this week the Government must urgently fast-track its roadmap out of lockdown for regional Victoria.

“Regional Victoria’s 14-day average is at 0.2 but unfairly harsh restrictions are still strangling the life out of small business and country communities,” Mr Walsh said.

“Our dance schools and gyms are closed, school students are spending more time out of the classroom and cafes, restaurants and pubs are struggling to make ends meet under unworkably low capacity limits.

“In comparison, New South Wales has managed to open up, while still recording low numbers of new cases each day.

“Immediately introducing NSW rules for regional Victoria, while still enforcing wearing of masks, will drive up business confidence and safely reopen our country communities.”

It was also a theme taken up by journalists at the Premier’s daily briefing on Sunday, October 4.

Question: Three active cases in regional Victoria, I assume on top of the Mitchell Shire one today. How have you been able to justify the restrictions that remain in place for regional Victoria given those three cases?

Prof Brett Sutton: “So again, the settings that we have in regional Victoria really relate to what the transmission potential is if a new case were introduced there. If you have no restrictions for example, and, it’s not inconceivable that in the next week or two, or a couple of weeks probably that regional Victoria could have one or two active cases.

“But if the settings allow for dozens and dozens of interactions for anyone, then an infectious case has dozens and dozens of interactions and that is what leads to that exponential growth in cases.

“Regional Victoria doesn’t want to see that. None of us want to see that. So, if we could absolutely isolate regional Victoria completely from Metro Melbourne, then maybe we could have settings that really allow much more freedom of interaction.

“But while there’s essential work, while there are those interactions with metro Melbourne that must occur because of essential industries, then we have to have a kind of setting that minimizes that potential. It doesn’t take it away as you’ve seen, but we have to minimize it.”

(This was a clear reference to the spread from the Chadstone cluster to Mitchell).”

Question: Why can’t individual regions be broken down the same way that Melbourne is broken down?

Prof Brett Sutton: “For that same reason. People will move across regional Victoria for essential reasons and in a sense, if you were to create a region with no restrictions, what do you think that might mean for people moving?”

Question: It’s about the level of restrictions.

“Or level of restrictions that are really appealing to people who haven’t been able to do a number of things, you know, it might be indoor community sport. I can see that it could lead to people moving into those regions, furtively, to be able to enjoy some of that.

“Now that would be a risk to that region just as they’re enjoying it themselves. There would be a risk of seeding from other places that might have cases. So, all of that needs to be kept in mind, I think.”

Question: The state of Victoria has a landmass size which is 23 times the size of the greater Melbourne region. Do you think it’s justified to keep that entire region on the restrictions that are currently at when there are three active cases, albeit rather close to Melbourne?

Prof Brett Sutton: “Clearly we do. This is the setting that’s been judged to protect regional Victoria and lots of regional Victorians understand and desire that and would not want it any other way.

“We know that it’s tough for businesses. We know that it’s tough for people who haven’t been able to see family members and loved ones for a long period of time, but the alternative is to see a growth in numbers that just leads to greater restrictions.

“The judgments that are now being made about Victoria’s border with South Australia and elsewhere are judgments that can only be made because we’ve got down to the number of active cases we have in regional Victoria.

“If that were to turn around, again it’s not for Victoria to make those decisions, but I can see other jurisdictions saying, well that’s not safe to open up with regional Victoria.

“So, we need regional Victoria to be in a position where they can have that movement, potentially across to other jurisdictions in Australia. WA has obviously made a judgment about not requiring a mandatory quarantine period in a hotel for Victoria. That’s because of where we’ve gotten to.”

The Premier Daniel Andrews said today that the reduction in numbers meant the state was about a week ahead of where it expected to be, so that announcements could be made on the weekend of October 17 and 18, about easing restrictions. But that may principally apply to Melbourne.

Officially, at least, regional Victoria cannot move to ‘the Last Step’ on the ‘Roadmap to Reopening’ until there are “no new cases for 14 days across Victoria”. Presumably the clock has been reset after today’s new case in the Melbourne interface shire of Mitchell.