As concern grows about the spread from a Melbourne hotel of the UK’s virulent coronavirus strain, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has announced a snap five-day lockdown. By Maddison Connaughton.

Melbourne enters ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at a press conference on Friday, February 12.
Credit: AAP Image/Luis Ascui

Victoria will enter a five-day lockdown from 11:59pm tonight, as the state’s government scrambles to contain a leak of the infectious Covid-19 UK variant from a quarantine hotel.

By Friday, there were 13 active cases linked to a cluster at the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport.

Premier Daniel Andrews told a press conference it is expected there will be more confirmed cases in the coming days. He framed the lockdown as a “circuit breaker”, designed to prevent seeding of the UK variant into the community.

This strain is more infectious and has spread quickly across Europe since it first emerged in Britain in late 2020. It has been detected in 70 countries, including Australia. This variant was picked up in Brisbane and Perth earlier this year, sending those cities into their own snap lockdowns. Both were able to stop the spread.

In Victoria, more than 900 close contacts of positive cases from the Holiday Inn are currently isolating, the state’s testing commander, Jeroen Weimar, said on Friday.

It is believed that between 4000 and 5000 people passed through Terminal 4 at Melbourne Airport on Tuesday, February 9, while an infected person was working at Brunetti café. Queensland authorities are currently trying to contact trace 1500 travellers who were in the airport during this period.

Victoria’s five-day lockdown will see the state return to stage four restrictions for the first time in months.

The five-kilometre travel limit will be reimposed, and masks will be mandatory both inside and outside. No visitors will be allowed in private residences or aged care homes.

Once again, there will only be four reasons to leave your home: care giving and compassionate reasons; essential work or education, if that cannot be done from home; two hours of exercise each day; and shopping for essentials.

It is expected the major supermarkets will reintroduce buying limits on certain groceries to ward off panic buying. Only one person per household per day will be allowed to go shopping.

Religious gatherings will not be permitted, and funerals will be limited to 10 people. Weddings will only be allowed on compassionate grounds. Hospitality returns to takeaway only, while all non-essential retail will be closed. Schools are closed – except to vulnerable children and the children of essential workers – while childcare remains open. Pools and gyms are closed.

In Melbourne, professional sport – including the Australian Open – will continue through the lockdown, but crowds will not be permitted. Athletes have been classed as essential workers.

The premier has defended the decision to allow the tennis slam to continue. “I don’t have advice to cancel the event on the basis that it’s unsafe,” he said on Friday. “I just don’t have that.”

However, he said that “there needs to be a cold, hard discussion” about hotel quarantine. The premier’s comments suggested he may push to lower the cap on overseas arrivals.

“Or should it be a much smaller program that’s based on compassionate grounds?” he floated on Friday.

Victorian authorities have linked the Holiday Inn spread with the use of a nebuliser by a quarantined guest. These medical devices, sometimes used by asthma sufferers, dramatically increase the amount of aerosol particles a user breathes out.

The guest has since become so unwell he's been moved to an intensive care unit at a Melbourne hospital.

But Professor Michael Toole of the Burnet Institute tells The Saturday Paper that the focus on the nebuliser is “a little bit of a furphy”.

He says the device alone does not explain how transmission was able to occur between hotel rooms, nor does it explain all the recent cases. Instead, Professor Toole says, it’s important to also look at hotel air-conditioning and “positive pressure” – the rush of air into the corridor when a door is opened.

As Rachel Withers, contributing editor to The Monthly Today, writes in this weekend’s edition of The Saturday Paper, “While this is getting a bit into the weeds of hotel architecture, it underscores an important point: these hotels are not hospitals; they weren’t designed to be.

“In hospital rooms, for example, positive pressure is reversed.”

While researchers are still seeking to understand the specifics of the UK variant, it is believed to be more infectious because of mutation in its “spike protein” – literally the corona, or crown, that gives coronavirus its name.

Early studies suggest this mutation may make the variant more efficient at penetrating human cells. One study, which is still undergoing peer review, suggests the variant may be 50-74 per cent more transmissible.

“This is not the 2020 virus,” Premier Andrews said on Friday. “If we wait, it will be too late.”

Read more in this weekends edition of The Saturday Paper.

Maddison Connaughton is the editor of The Saturday Paper.