REGIONAL Victoria took its medicine, with the rest of the state, on Thursday evening, and locked down businesses from Inverloch in the south-east to Swan Hill in the north west.
Seems there were positive fragments in the sewerage at Wangaratta, the Premier Daniel Andrews’ old hometown, and likely to be other cases across regional Victoria as well.
The Premier and his COVID-19 Commander Jeroen Weimar said it, so it must be right. Too important, too much at stake to get that wrong, surely?
But the information about the positive fragments in a regional sewerage system was wrong.
Mayor of Wangaratta Dean Rees said so on Friday and called on the Premier to make a reassessment of the need to shut down everything from the snowfields to cafés in Cowes.
Nationals leader Peter Walsh followed suit, calling the revelations “embarrassing”.
“My indications were that we did have a positive a couple of days ago, then we had a negative, and then we had another negative,” Mr Rees said.
“Even the positive was maybe a false positive.
“So, to use Wangaratta as an excuse as to why we need to shut down Victoria statewide is probably not a good one, when we don’t have any cases.”
Here’s what the Premier had to say on Thursday, justifying the lockdown in regional Victoria:
“Why is this in regional Victoria when the cases are predominantly in Melbourne? Well, we have a sewerage test that has detected COVID in the Northeast. So, the Wangaratta sewerage test has pinged if you like. Firstly, positive, then it went negative, now it’s gone positive again,” Mr Andrews said.
“So, we have some reason to believe that there is COVID, either in that community or has been in that community. We saw last time, only a few weeks ago, this went from Melbourne into Ballan, Bacchus Marsh, Barwon Heads and all the way up to Mildura.
“We all have to work as hard as we can to avoid this spreading any further than an already has. But I don’t get the luxury of assuming that we know everything about this. We’ve always got to assume that there are more cases out there than we have positive test results.
And with one sewage detection, we have to assume that there are cases. So that’s why it’s statewide. And I think that as painful as it is and as counterintuitive sometimes as it is, we don’t want this taking a hold in country Victoria, we just don’t.
“None of us are happy to be here. None of us. But these are the realities we face and none of us have the luxury of ignoring them.”
But the Wangaratta’s mayor says using a wastewater detection of COVID-19 in the town to justify locking regional Victoria down doesn’t stack up.
He said it was still up for debate whether the first detection was even positive and re-testing of sewage had since returned two negative results.
On Friday morning, the Wangaratta mayor told The Weekend Australian he understood from North East Health that there had been one positive detection a week ago, followed by two negatives, indicating there were no ongoing infections in the area.
Asked at his daily Covid press conference whether it was the Premier or North East Health who had the wrong information, Health Minister Martin Foley repeatedly failed to give a direct answer, denying the Wangaratta wastewater detection had been the justification for making the lockdown statewide.
“It wasn’t the justification, it’s part of the rich tapestry of the public health information that is delivered,” Mr Foley said, listing cases and exposure sites during Victoria’s fifth lockdown in areas including Mildura, Ballan, Bacchus Marsh, Phillip Island and East Gippsland.
Mr Weimar told the press conference he was unable to shed further light on whether it was the Premier or Northeast Health who had the wrong information.
“I didn’t bring my file with the Wangaratta results this morning with me. I should have checked this morning, but I didn’t,” Mr Weimar said.
Asked whether there was a single primary or secondary close contact isolating in regional Victoria as a result of the most recent outbreaks, Mr Weimar said: “I don’t know the answer to that,” he said.
A short time after the press conference, Mr Weimar rang Wangaratta council CEO Brendan McGrath, confirming that there had been a positive detection in the town from a sample taken between July 29 and 30, followed by two negative detections.
“We feel that Dan (Andrews) has accidentally been given the wrong information and has portrayed that,” Mr Rees told The Australian.
“I don’t think they’d give us false information purposely, but it’s clear it was false information.”
Mr Rees called for the lockdown of regional Victoria to be reconsidered.
“It sounded like it was the basis for putting us into lockdown, so I think a reversal would be fair and reasonable,” he said.
Local business operators have weighed in too, saying the snap-lockdown will cost them thousands of dollars in wasted food alone, but would also hit casual staff, and set the spluttering recovery of their businesses and the return of customers back another month or more.
Release regional Victoria, says Walsh
Nationals’ leader Peter Walsh didn’t mince his words.
“There’s only one response to today’s embarrassing revelations that sewerage at Wangaratta ultimately tested negative for COVID: release regional Victoria from lockdown.
“Announcing the snap statewide lockdown due to outbreaks in parts of Melbourne, Daniel Andrews claimed wastewater at Wangaratta “has pinged, if you like, firstly positive, then it went negative and now it has gone positive again” and that this left no option but to lockdown all of regional Victoria.
“But today, local Wangaratta Mayor Dean Rees revealed the third test had in fact registered negative.
“Lie, cover-up or misinformation – no matter how the Premier got it so wrong, Labor now has one choice: release regional Victoria from the seven-day lockdown.
“Thousands of people, businesses and jobs are trapped in a loop of catastrophic mental, social and economic destruction because the Andrews Labor Government still can’t get the basics right.
“Daniel Andrews based this statewide lockdown on misinformation – at best. At worst, Daniel Andrews has deceived Victorians for his own political ends.
“The mental anguish of the past two lockdowns has pushed more Victorians to the brink.
“Every day our communities remain closed is another day of lost income for families who are barely making ends meet.
“Victorians deserve a plan out of statewide lockdowns. A plan for a proportionate response that uses rapid testing, good contact tracing and better targeted vaccinations to crackdown on future outbreaks – without locking down our whole state.
“And the Andrews Labor Government must come clean with the public health advice in the interests of transparency and accountability.
“Failing to re-open regional Victoria tells us one thing: Daniel Andrews is guilty of putting his own job before saving the jobs and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of regional Victorians,” Mr Walsh said.