How Melbourne’s ‘short, sharp’ Covid lockdowns became the longest in the world

Australia’s second-largest city’s strategy has left it economically and psychologically depressed after initially succeeding in reducing case numbers to zero

It has been a long 19 months in Melbourne. As of Tuesday 5 October, Australia’s second-largest city will have been in lockdown for 246 days – overtaking Buenos Aires as the city that has spent the most cumulative days under stay-at-home orders.

By the time Melbourne’s current lockdown lifts at the end of the month, it will have spent 267 days in lockdown – 45% of the time since the coronavirus pandemic was declared on 12 March 2020.

It’s a strategy that has left the city feeling economically and psychologically depressed, but it has also succeeded, five times in a row, in reducing case numbers to zero.

But in Melbourne’s sixth lockdown the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has formally abandoned hopes of getting to zero daily cases, replacing it with a goal of getting at least 80% of Victorians over the age of 16 double vaccinated.

Lockdown will lift once the vaccination rate gets to 70%, expected around 26 October. Support for the Victorian government’s handling of the pandemic is waning. Last week’s Essential poll for Guardian Australia found approval of the Andrews government had dropped to 44%.

Compliance with the strict restrictions is also waning. Parties held over the weekend of the AFL grand final – which was moved from Melbourne to the persistently covid-free city of Perth – led to a 50% spike in cases on Thursday, for a record daily figure of 1,438. A further 1,143 cases were recorded on Friday, as the premier extended vaccine mandates to more than a million workers.

Speak to Melburnians and the overwhelming majority say they support the decision of the Andrews government to lock down hard at the first signs of an outbreak.

But opposition to the health measures, while still a minority movement, is growing and has erupted onto the streets. Five thousand people joined a violent omnibus protest last week, fuelled by far-right figures. The protests started outside the offices of the construction industry union on Monday and roamed around the city on Tuesday before ending up at the Shrine of Remembrance, a memorial to Australian soldiers, on Wednesday.

They rallied against vaccine mandates, a two-week shutdown of construction, and the lockdown in general. There were hundreds of arrests and warnings of a super-spreader event, with union staff who responded to the protesters sent into quarantine.

The protests shook a city that was already at the end of its tether, and was then literally shaken by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake.

Victoria’s chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, quipped on Twitter: “No more horses of the apocalypse, please”. The city has had enough.

Anti-lockdown protests ended up at the Shrine of Remembrance, a memorial to Australian soldiers.
Anti-lockdown protests ended up at the Shrine of Remembrance, a memorial to Australian soldiers. Photograph: Con Chronis/AFP/Getty Images

The earthquake – which brought down half a wall in Chapel Street – turned out to be a relatively harmless distraction from an endless cycle of bad news, says Celeste Liddle, a Melbourne-based writer and Greens political candidate.

“I feel like there’s a lot of people who are struggling, but mental health only kind of gets talked about as a weapon to get used against the government rather than an actuality of endless lockdowns and the impact that social isolation can have.”

The Arrernte woman has lived in Melbourne for more than 30 years. It’s always been a vibrant city, the only truly 24-hour city in Australia.

“We often make fun of Sydney because, for a city that’s even bigger than Melbourne it doesn’t have anywhere near as much going on,” she says. “I wonder if that outdoors-all-year-round, even-when-the-weather’s-miserable lifestyle of Melbourne is going to pick up again. I am a bit concerned that, after this, after a lot of businesses have shut down, a once vibrant city is going to be dead for a couple of years. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild.”

Melbourne’s thriving arts sector has been the worst affected, and least supported, industry since the pandemic began.

Kyran Wheatley was preparing to open a comedy club when Melbourne was first put into lockdown in March 2020. It opened for one weekend that July before going back into hard lockdown.

Entertainment venues have been given a tentative reopening date of 8 November by the Victorian government, provided they keep crowds to one person per four square metres. That’s not enough customers to be viable, says Wheatley. He is also concerned people will be less excited to go out if the city reopens with thousands of cases a day, rather than zero.

Melbourne was shaken by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake.
Melbourne was shaken by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake. Photograph: Alexander Bogatyrev/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

“That is the big uncertainty at the moment, not knowing how the city will respond to Covid being in everything around you,” he says.

Had he known the city would be locked down for two years, Wheatley says, he would not have opened the club. But despite the setbacks, he supports the lockdown.

“The reason we’ve been in lockdown this long is because we care about whether people die,” he says. “It’s just us choosing to protect life – at a massive expense, a huge expense, but to, as [Australian rapper] Briggs says, protect Nan.”

Australia has become used to avoiding the worst impacts of global catastrophe. But expecting to get through a global pandemic unscathed is unrealistic – and something that has only been achieved by Australia’s most remote city.

“If our expectation is that we all live in Perth where nothing changes, then move to Perth,” Wheatley says.

The current outbreak began when the Delta variant seeded into Melbourne from Sydney in July, fuelling already tense interstate relations between New South Wales and Victoria. On 15 July Andrews announced the fifth lockdown (which almost immediately became the sixth) by saying: “These cases started in NSW, but I’m determined they will end here.”

The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has formally abandoned hopes of getting to zero daily Covid cases.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has formally abandoned hopes of getting to zero daily Covid cases. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP

He spoke with the optimism of past victories – Victoria had quashed two outbreaks with snap lockdowns already this winter, and reduced case numbers to zero following a gruelling 112-day hard lockdown last year.

But this time, the numbers kept rising.

A bungled federal rollout, and then a decision to divert available Pfizer doses to Sydney, which had been in lockdown since June, have been blamed for an initially slow start to Victoria’s vaccine rollout, which picked up pace in August.

Case numbers in NSW began to level off in mid September, as the vaccination rate increased. The numbers in Melbourne are expected to follow suit, but Andrews pointedly told Victorians on Thursday they would have hit those targets sooner had doses of the mRNA vaccines been made available earlier.

Andrews has also criticised Victorians for breaching lockdown restrictions when the end is in sight.

He told reporters on Thursday, reporting the highest ever daily figure, that “plenty of these cases were completely avoidable”.

“Let’s not make [healthcare worker’s] work any harder by making really poor choices and going and visiting mates and friends and family and taking the virus with us,” he said.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Australian Covid-19 death toll reaches 313 – as it happened
Australia’s coronavirus death toll passes 300. Queensland goes a week without a community coronavirus case. This blog is now closed

Michael McGowan (now) and Amy Remeikis (earlier)

10, Aug, 2020 @8:47 AM

Article image
Victorian nurses ask for urgent PPE as more than 730 health workers sick with Covid-19
Letter to Daniel Andrews outlines ‘distressing’ situation where nurses are not being given N95 masks and there ‘isn’t enough PPE’

Melissa Davey

04, Aug, 2020 @7:44 AM

Article image
Victoria Covid cases drop below 50 for first time since June as NSW records four – as it happened
Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown extended by two weeks in ‘roadmap’ as Victoria pursues aggressive suppression strategy. This blog is closed

Calla Wahlquist (now) and Elias Visontay (earlier)

07, Sep, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Melbourne Covid curfew ends and restrictions ease, but Victoria introduces huge new fines
Schools and childcare return, while rules are relaxed for outdoor gatherings, but breaches may be punished with fines of almost $5,000

Ben Smee and Australian Associated Press

27, Sep, 2020 @4:18 AM

Article image
More Covid cases linked to Melbourne's Holiday Inn outbreak likely caused by nebuliser
Australia’s peak doctors group says more infectious coronavirus variants have ‘blown open cracks in our hotel quarantine system’

Calla Wahlquist and Matilda Boseley

10, Feb, 2021 @7:27 AM

Article image
Queensland holds firm on 28-day border ban after NSW records 12 new Covid cases
Gladys Berejiklian hits out at Annastacia Palaszczuk after Queensland counterpart says state won’t open up until NSW gets ‘community transmission under control’

Melissa Davey

08, Oct, 2020 @3:02 AM

Article image
Coronavirus Victoria: army to door-knock Melbourne hotspot suburbs to offer free Covid-19 testing
Half of residents of Broadmeadows and Keilor Downs to be tested over the next three days as community transmission spikes

Melissa Davey

25, Jun, 2020 @2:43 AM

Article image
Coronavirus Victoria: 73 new Covid-19 cases reported as 36 Melbourne suburbs return to lockdown
Ten hotspot postcodes face restrictions from midnight, as surge in community transmission sees state ramp up containment measures

Melissa Davey

01, Jul, 2020 @3:52 AM

Article image
Victoria’s Covid restrictions ease as Daniel Andrews reveals 25km travel bubble and scraps exercise time limit
Melbourne to resume real estate auctions and reopen hairdressers and outdoor sporting facilities as state records two new cases

Lisa Cox

18, Oct, 2020 @2:36 AM

Article image
Scott Morrison says Australia cannot shut down to contain second wave of Covid-19
Prime minister says trying to eliminate virus not the ‘right strategy’ as he moves to reassure people income support will remain

Katharine Murphy Political editor

15, Jul, 2020 @3:07 AM