Inside the key meeting that decided Victoria’s lockdown fate

Inside the key meeting that decided Victoria’s lockdown fate

June 4, 2021

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Victoria’s seven most influential decision-makers welcomed a familiar guest to their meeting on Wednesday of last week.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, as he did on so many occasions last year, came armed to the 7.30pm video conference with data and modelling on the latest coronavirus outbreak. The emergency meeting was organised too late for the ministers to talk in person.

Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton presented to the government the night before lockdown began.Credit:Simon Schluter

Professor Sutton has no doubt come to know the eight senior ministers who are tasked with making the most difficult decisions about lockdown. But two of last year’s eight-member crisis council of cabinet were missing. One was Police Minister Lisa Neville, on sick leave and replaced by acting minister Danny Pearson.

The other absentee was Premier Daniel Andrews. Sidelined from official duties as he recovers from a fractured spine, Mr Andrews had spoken with the deputising James Merlino earlier that day and was awaiting further updates from the Wednesday-night meeting.

By the evening of Wednesday May 26, the coronavirus case numbers to be announced the next day had come in: up to 12 new cases. Victoria had gone from two on Monday morning to a cluster in the mid-20s less than 72 hours later.

Professor Sutton outlined that all the cases were carrying the Kappa variant, one of two Indian strains. An AFL match at the MCG and three Chapel Street bars had become exposures sites and a whopping 10,000 people were to be asked to self-isolate as primary and secondary close contacts.

In the hot seat: Acting Premier James Merlino has been liaising with Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit:Simon Schluter

“That was when we realised how big it was. Much, much bigger than we thought,” said one government insider, who requested anonymity to discuss internal processes.

The ministers in the meeting – Mr Merlino, Health Minister Martin Foley, Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, Treasurer Tim Pallas, Mr Pearson and senior ministers Jacinta Allan and Martin Pakula – listened as Professor Sutton conveyed the urgency of the situation.

The professor’s message was clear: movement needed to be restricted to run the outbreak into the ground, and a short lockdown now would prevent a long one later.

Those familiar with these meetings say that behind closed doors, the state government heeds the advice of Professor Sutton’s public health team. That doesn’t mean ideas and recommendations don’t face any challenge.

Three of seven decision-makers: (from left) Mr Merlino, Treasurer Tim Pallas and acting Police Minister Danny Pearson.Credit:Joe Armao

The conversation flows two ways: ministers question whether certain industries can continue working, how long a lockdown should be, specifics around the justification.

Two hours were carved out for the meeting with Professor Sutton. It lasted only one.

The next morning, acting Premier Mr Merlino called a press conference to announce the lockdown: seven days, a return to a five-kilometre movement limit but no night-time curfew, the most onerous of 2020’s restrictions.

Outside the seven cabinet ministers, Labor MPs knew very little. One MP said they received a call an hour before the 11am press conference indicating a lockdown announcement was imminent.

“And that was fine. People in the public sometimes think decisions are made days before. It doesn’t work like that. To even get a call before can be quite generous,” the MP said.

Those in the business community were less content with the government’s insular discussions. Just ask Tim Piper, Victorian head of the Australian Industry Group, a peak employer body.

“If they engaged with us at any point before these announcements, it would make some significant differences around the edges where we could suggest where they might’ve gone a step too far and why,” he said.

While the decision to lock down was made the night before, alarm bells at the Health Department’s Lonsdale Street headquarters had been ringing for days.

News filtered through on the afternoon of Friday, May 21, that wastewater sampling in Melbourne’s north had detected traces of COVID-19.

Yes, the sample was from the Wollert area, home of the man who became infected in Adelaide hotel quarantine on May 4 before flying to Melbourne and testing positive on May 11. But he had been in hotel quarantine in the CBD for 10 days before the wastewater alert.

A call went out for anyone in the northern suburbs with symptoms to get tested.

Yet the first two cases in the outbreak may have been a serendipitous discovery.

Long lines became a fixture at testing centres after the coronavirus was found in northern suburbs wastewater.Credit:Joe Armao

In other words, the writing was on the wall once the Chief Health Officer presented to the government that night.

The reverberations from the Thursday lockdown announcement rumbled immediately across the city and state.

Victoria’s Treasurer, Tim Pallas, sensed the desperation of employees suddenly out of work for their fourth time in 16 months.

As political opponents go, Mr Pallas and federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have always had a strong working relationship. Privately, they have both remarked that they like each other.

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg refused to offer economic support for a one-week lockdown.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But their conversation turned tense that weekend when Mr Frydenberg ruled out providing support such as a JobKeeper wage subsidy to help Victorians in lockdown.

Setting up a system of federal payments for a seven-day shutdown hardly seemed worthwhile for Mr Frydenberg.

An infuriated Mr Pallas asked him for a piecemeal offering, an olive branch to prevent the state and federal fights that have dominated so much of the pandemic.

Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas let loose on the Morrison government at a Sunday press conference.Credit:Getty Images

Unable to reach an agreement, Mr Pallas teed off at a press conference that Sunday.

The federal government’s reluctance to fork out was “nothing short of a disgrace”, the Treasurer fumed.

While the rage drew little response in Canberra, a man with a penchant for federal slapdowns would have been proud of the efforts as he recovered from his spinal fracture at home in Melbourne’s south-east.

Mr Andrews has been watching closely ahead of his expected return in the second half of June.

MPs and staff say while his involvement has slightly grown in the past fortnight, his communications have only been with Mr Merlino or senior advisers in the Premier’s office.

Most decisions were already made by the time Mr Andrews was briefed on them – except for the monumental ones, like locking down.

“Dan provides advice on the bigger-ticket stuff,” said one government insider.

One MP said the message to the party room had been made clear.

“We were told Dan needs time to heal, don’t call him. We let those who need to talk to him do it. I thought I would get the impression that he was leading things behind the scenes, but I haven’t to be honest.”

Premier Daniel Andrews, pictured in intensive care in March, is due to return to work later this month.Credit: Supplied

The Premier, like the rest of Victoria, was observing worrying signs as the week-long lockdown entered its second half: infections emerged in aged care, the list of exposure sites boomed to over 350 and there were at least two cases with an unknown source.

Publicly, authorities intensified their language. In comments sent by the government to journalists on Tuesday night, Professor Sutton warned of “an absolute beast” that has “moved faster than any other strain we’ve dealt with”.

The only discussion between senior ministers as they met that night was how long the lockdown would be extended, and, with a more lenient easing in regional areas on the cards, how it would be enforced.

Victoria Police provided four options for enforcing two-tier restrictions, including a return to the “ring of steel” of police checkpoints around the city. There was an acceptance in the government, however, that not every rule could be enforced with the iron fist of 2020, particularly after outspoken complaints from the police union on the inefficiency of a ring of steel.

Instead, as Mr Merlino announced at a Wednesday press conference, roving police checks would accompany a request for regional businesses to check the IDs of every customer. Melbourne’s lockdown would continue for seven more days.

State Liberal MPs were cynical about the extension. Leader Michael O’Brien called the “fleeting contact” a confected justification for extending the lockdown, scrutiny that only intensified once two such cases were reclassified as false positives on Thursday evening.

Media questioning on Friday centred on whether the lockdown could be shortened; hopes offset by news a family who visited NSW while infectious had in fact contracted the more infectious Indian variant, known as Delta.

Like last year’s four months of second-wave lockdowns, the government has been split into three tiers of involvement in the past fortnight.

The senior ministers regularly meet in private and with Professor Sutton’s team. All 21 ministers meet online at 9.30am and 4.30pm every day.

Special briefings are then organised with the entire party room and led by a senior minister: Mr Merlino gave one as leader on Tuesday, Health Minister Martin Foley gave a health briefing after the lockdown extension.

This is not where plans or policies on restrictions are devised – that is reserved solely for the senior group of ministers and their meetings with Professor Sutton’s team.

“It’s our chance to ask questions we get sent by our constituents,” one MP said. “There’s been no party-room dissent in this lockdown; everyone knows the stakes. Some questions are the same as in press conferences though: What are the triggers? What numbers would take us out of lockdown or keep us in? The answer is generally the same: that it’s a day-to-day affair.”

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