Daniel Andrews under fire over delayed easing of restrictions after seven new cases reported | Victoria

Scott Morrison has criticised the Victorian government for delaying an announcement about the easing of coronavirus restrictions, saying Victoria’s public health systems “are either up to the task of dealing with future outbreaks or they are not”.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday held off announcing opening dates for the retail and hospitality sectors pending the outcome of tests connected to an outbreak in the northern suburbs. It prompted criticism from the business community, the state opposition, the federal government and his own former health minister.

Morrison said the decision to delay the announcement – which he interpreted as a decision to keep businesses closed longer – was a “profound disappointment”.

“At some point, you have to move forward and put your public health systems to work in a bid to reclaim the jobs that have been lost, and rescue the livelihoods and peace of mind of so many Victorians who have been affected by the inability to contain the outbreak that led to the second Victorian wave,” Morrison said in a statement

“Victoria’s public health systems are either up to the task of dealing with future outbreaks or they are not. The decision to keep businesses closed suggests that there is still not sufficient confidence within the government that their systems can support reopening.”

The prime minister’s statement was another step in an increasingly bitter dispute between the Victorian and federal governments.

In a heated press conference earlier on Sunday, the Victorian premier said he had “hoped” to be able to announce significant steps about opening up the retail and hospitality industries from the middle of the week.

“We are not in a position to do that today because we have at least 1,000 test results from that northern metropolitan outbreak that are in the labs,” Andrews said. “We will get those today, probably the balance of them tomorrow, and [there] will be additional testing conducted throughout the day.

“This is not anything other than a cautious pause, to wait to get that important information, to get the results of those tests. Just to rule out whether there … is more virus there than we think.”

However, Andrews did announce a further easing of restrictions for regional Victoria.

Victoria recorded seven new cases of Covid-19 on Sunday, the same number as on Saturday. Six of those were linked to other known cases in the outbreak in Melbourne’s northern suburbs while the seventh was a healthcare worker with no known links. About 3,500 people in the northern suburbs got a Covid-19 test on Saturday, including 250 identified as close contacts of two schools at the centre of the outbreak: the East Preston Islamic College and Croxton specialist school in Northcote.

Those 250 tests are among the 1,000 tests still awaiting results on Sunday. Andrews said it would be irresponsible to announce an easing of restrictions until those test results had been received and analysed, to determine whether any new cases were linked to the outbreak or if there were signs of untraced community transmission. That could take 24 hours, and Andrews said he would then be able to announce changes on Monday or Tuesday.

After 60 minutes of questioning, he said that he still anticipated that restrictions would be eased by 1 November, as slated last week.

“I wouldn’t want anyone watching here to be in any doubt,” he said. “November 1, absolutely, still well and truly on track to be able to have opening up before then.”

Asked by a reporter why he did not say that at the start of the press conference, Andrews sighed and said he’d had a late night and early morning discussing the northern suburbs outbreak.

From midnight on Sunday, greater Shepparton, which had been held back due to an outbreak, will be under the same rules as the rest of the regions. From midnight on Tuesday, 50 people will be allowed to attend an outdoor funeral; 20 an outdoor religious service; and gyms and indoor pools will reopen to a maximum of 20 participants. Children’s indoor non-contact community sport will also be allowed to resume.

Andrews had been foreshadowing a Sunday announcement for a week and said, as recently as Friday that the northern suburbs outbreak would not delay the “significant” easing of restrictions from Sunday. On Saturday he warned that he would “caution people from banking” on that announcement.

The timeline for easing restrictions in Victoria has changed several times. In early September the government released a roadmap for reopening, which included a plan to lift Melbourne out of lockdown on 26 October provided the rolling 14-day average was fewer than five cases per day, and there had been no more than three mystery cases in the proceeding 14 days. The rolling average on Sunday was 4.6, and there have been seven mystery cases.

Then in early October, Andrews brought forward the easing of restrictions to 19 October. On 18 October, he announced a limited easing of restrictions and promised a further easing from 1 November, with some changes to be outlined from 25 October.

The shifting goalposts have caused frustration among some Victorians. At the press conference, Andrews rejected suggestions that the Victorian public had been on a rollercoaster of announcements. Asked if he had misled the public, he said “no”.

The Business Council of Australia said it was “at a loss” to understand why Victoria was unable to reopen, when businesses in New South Wales have been able to operate with low numbers of locally-acquired cases for months.

New South Wales recorded no new locally acquired cases on Sunday, for the third day in a row. It recorded seven cases in hotel quarantine.

“Victorians cannot hang on week to week,” the Business Council CEO, Jennifer Westacott, said. “People are at a financial and mental breaking point.”

Earlier on Sunday, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said the only reason the Victorian government would not open up “is if they didn’t have confidence in their own contact tracing system”.

Andrews, the Victorian chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, and Victoria’s head of contact tracing, Jeroen Weimar, all separately rejected that suggestion, saying that the number of tests conducted in connection to the northern suburbs outbreak, with up to 400 primary and secondary contacts identified and isolated, showed the system was working well.

Andrews refused to comment on a comment from his recently departed health minister, Jenny Mikakos, who tweeted: “The set reopening is gradual and safe so any delay is unnecessary. It’s paralysis in decision-making.”

“I have nothing to say about those comments because I have nothing to say about them,” Andrews said. “That is a choice I make and it does not make any sense to be interrogated on why I do not say anything.”

Sutton said none of those criticising Victoria’s public health response were privy to all of the the health data. “None of them are in the tent,” he said.

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