This time last week, we were still in lockdown, with our curfew continuing to apply right up to midnight. We’d been told that we weren’t going to have a UK-style “Freedom Day” where all restrictions were ended at once - and we didn’t. But somehow the “70% fully vaccinated” target morphed into a moral obligation to the people of Victoria, and so we got a “Freedom Midnight”.

It was a big deal. A time to celebrate. It was supposed to be the end of lockdown. Not just the end of the lockdown Melbourne had been in since August, but the end of lockdowns in Victoria forever.

So how better to celebrate it than a moonlit walk?

What’s so magic about 70%?

The 70% fully vaccinated target (or residents aged 16+) was part of the National Plan agreed by the National Cabinet (though, like most things Covid, individual states and territories were free to go off and do their own thing anyway). It was largely based on modelling by the Doherty Institute to try and find a number that would give “acceptable” results re-opening the economy. And I get it - if you want to set a target to aim for based on vaccination percentages, you have to pick a number. And 70% is easier to sell than than, say, 67.93% or 73.41%.

What frustrated me most about it was the almost religious status the target acquired here in Victoria. To listen to some of what was said, you would think that re-opening at 69.99% would be extremely risky, while re-opening at 70.01% would not only be fairly safe, but also a moral obligation. Realistically, it was much more likely to be a sliding scale: Each day delaying the re-opening would make it slightly safer to re-open, but also make a day longer people have to live under tight restrictions.

Not only was the 70% number arbitrary, but we knew the conditions were different from what had been modelled. Some of those things - like daily case numbers remaining stubbornly high - suggested a need for greater caution in the short term. Other things - like vaccination rates continuing to rise - suggested it was less likely in the long term we would hit the worst cases in the model.

In the short term our pace of vaccination might work against us - yes, 70% might have been fully vaccinated, but with the much quoted 2 weeks to develop full immunity, many of those would not be fully protected. But in the long term, we had hit 90% having at least one dose at much the same time as we hit 70% fully vaccinated. We can reasonably expect that we will be 90% fully vaccinated within a month or two of the re-opening - long before the six month window for the Doherty projections.

To me what that meant was that the 70% target became (almost) completely arbitrary. Yes, we needed something to aim for, but there was no need to make it the exact day we hit 70%.

The government has been told for well over a year that you can’t just switch all businesses on at the drop of a hat. An opening date chosen in advance for about the right time and the ability to prepare for re-opening would have been much more useful. Basically, decide what you want to happen on the day you relax restrictions, figure out what needs to be done beforehand so that can happen, then do what you can to make it work. It’s not hard.

For references, NSW chose to re-open the Monday after they hit 70%. Closer to the time they identified which Monday that would be, locked it in, and announced it in advance. That made way more sense to me than Victoria’s approach.

A real shambles

Here the approach led to chaos and confusion. In the week leading up to the likely relaxation of restrictions, officials from different government departments contradicted each other, said things in press conferences and later retracted them, went back on things in their own roadmap (while also adding new things not foreshadowed in the roadmap), and justified new discriminations against the partially vaccinated*. It seemed anything was fair game so long as they ended lockdown and delivered the Roadmap.

NSW had also had a midnight re-opening, and there were stories of queues outside the stores beforehand. Maybe it wasn’t wise to focus on those midnight freedoms - though, yes, a line has to be drawn somewhere, and midnight’s as good as any other time. But at least they weren’t trying to block everything they possibly could till 11:59PM before permitting it at 12AM.

Our government decided that curfew couldn’t possibly be removed before midnight. That meant that last Thursday we had a three hour curfew from 9PM - 11:59PM. Who cares whether that makes sense or not?

Sure, people could go out for a celebratory drink at midnight. Just so long as they didn’t dare to leave their property until the stroke of midnight. As Jeroen Weimar, the Covid-19 response commander put it: “You’ll have to wait for the witching hour to strike, and then you can make your way down”.

Earlier in the week, those businesses had been told that the curfew also applied to their staff. Sure, they could open at midnight, but heaven forbid that they spend any time preparing for the re-opening. And if your staff happened to live an hour away while your customers lived ten minutes away, that was just your bad luck.

Later, government officials walked that one back, but the entire operation felt like a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense. It definitely wouldn’t have passed the much-talked of “pub test” - though, fortunately, the pubs were still closed till midnight.

If we’d really wanted freedom at midnight, we could have got the same effect with much less trouble.

* I do also have concerns about the treatment of the unvaccinated, but the treatment of the partially vaccinated is far more egregious. Many have implied that this is an individual problem - individuals should just have got vaccinated sooner. However, it’s simple maths: If you want to re-open when 70% of 16 and over are fully vaccinated, by definition that means 30% of that group can’t be fully vaccinated.

This didn’t affect me personally - I was able to get fully vaccinated before re-opening, and didn’t need to be fully vaccinated to work anyway. But I was appalled by it.

A time to celebrate

I’m sure many were very wisely in bed and fast asleep before midnight. Perhaps they used their extra freedoms on Friday, perhaps they didn’t.

However, I heard from a friend on the other side of the city that people in their suburb were setting off fireworks at midnight. And apparently in the CBD there were hundreds of people on their balconies cheering at midnight. It was a big deal.

I have no idea how many pubs were open and how many people went out drinking after midnight. Perhaps it was only a few, or perhaps it was common. But it wasn’t for me.

A moonlit walk

When they brought back curfew a couple of months ago, I took the opportunity to take one final late night walk in the national park. So it wasn’t hugely surprising that I then wanted to take a midnight walk immediately after the curfew ended. Particularly given it was the time of the full moon:

It's the moon!

This isn’t something new. Long before the pandemic I wrote about the joy of night walking (and particularly moon-lit walks). I’ve even walked along the same road after midnight before.

And yet it was different this time round, just by contrast. It was actually the third evening in a row where I’d been out walking at night, admiring the city lights and the full moon. However, Tuesday and Wednesday I’d started while it was still light, and had to make sure I got back before the 9PM curfew. This time it was after midnight, there was no curfew, and it was an opportunity to celebrate a return to things I’d done pre-lockdown. Compared with the previous evenings, the moon was higher in the sky, the night was darker, and I just felt different.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience. As I walked, I felt at peace. There was tranquility. There was beauty. There was freedom. There was so much about it that I couldn’t easily capture, and yet I knew I wanted to share.

There were the sounds from the forest - sounds from the many creatures that, unlike us, had never been limited by curfew. There was the rustling of the trees. There was the view over the flatlands of street lights, right through to the city that I was now now permitted to visit (but don’t know if I will actually visit any time soon).

Above it all reigned the moon:

Catch!

Sometimes it was just peeking through the trees, while other times it was starkly visible. Sometimes it was set against a dark black sky, while other times it lit up the ever-shifting clouds with a glorious halo.

Among the clouds
A halo forms
While the man in the moon looks on

Not alone

The first sign it wasn’t going to go quite as I expected was when I approached a nearby picnic ground. From far away I could hear a bunch of people talking, and going back and forth between their cars.

Normally for me, night hiking would be a solitary activity. Even if I’m walking by the main road the cars that pass pay no attention to me, and I pay no attention to them. This time it was far less solitary, and it was that that made it an unexpectedly wonderful experience.

First I was passed by one car driving up the hill. Then another, and another.

The distant sounds of an approaching car. The blaze of headlights behind me. The car rushing past. The bright tail lights disappearing into the distance.

Tail lights disappearing into the distance

Maybe they were visiting friends and family. Perhaps there was a pub open somewhere up there. But patterns began to form: I noticed each one seemed to take the curves first, so guessed they were just going for a post-curfew celebratory drive along a winding road.

If so, it meant they weren’t really all that different from me. We’d each in our own way decided to take the first opportunity to do something that had previously been blocked by curfew. I’d wanted to admire the moonlight, yes, but I’d also wanted to push boundaries. And I wondered whether, like me, they had each thought that they alone had this brilliant idea.

So there was I, doing a solitary activity. I was observing their activities, not participating in them. And yet it felt like I was part of something bigger. Like we were together in pushing boundaries and seizing the new opportunity when it came.

The situation was absurd, really. There was no reason why we had to be out immediately after Freedom Midnight. And yet it was also surprisingly fun. The nervousness over re-opening - which I’d only just finished writing about before leaving home - had melted away. At times I laughed out loud for joy. It was an unexpectedly amazing experience, and I’m very glad I went.

A message from the Premier

Then on Friday I saw a Twitter thread from Premier Daniel Andrews. I think it’s well worth reading. It talks to the hope and the nervousness and the need for patience in the face of teething issues.

I have been (and am) critical of many of the government decisions over the past eighteen months. However, I don’t think I’ve ever doubted that our officials care about us and are trying to do the right thing for the state (as they see it) to the best of their ability. And that definitely applies to Dan.

Lockdown has been hard. Some have tried to spin it nicely, but really, there’s no joy in being the lockdown capital of the world. People are sick of it all.

The pandemic may still have a long way to run, and could throw up many surprises. But I hope we’ve seen our last lockdown and got through it together, and that there’s freedom and prosperity waiting on the other side.

How have you used your freedoms?

In the week since, I haven’t changed my activity that much. I’m still working from home, though that will change in the coming weeks and months. I haven’t yet dined in at a restaurant, and I don’t think I’ve done anything requiring me to prove I’m vaccinated (though I am).

I’ve had meals with family members in their houses, and even got home after 9PM. I’ve played disc golf with siblings more than 15km from my home. I’ve left my house without having to worry too much about whether I have a permitted reason.

80%, here we come

We are literally on the eve of the next round of restrictions relaxing. And for me I’m feeling that the nervousness has largely gone, being replaced with optimism. Maybe the nervousness will come back. Maybe it won’t. I’m not sure.

This is part of why I didn’t understand when people were complaining that some of the freedoms in 80% should have been in with 70%. There’s such a short period of time between the two.

But to me the reality is that there was nothing magic about the 70% number. Some things - like outdoor masks - should probably have gone before hitting the 70% target. Once you permit picnicking, compliance goes down, and in my opinion the legitimacy of the measure - already shaky - comes into sharper question. To permit indoor, mask-free dining in restaurants and indoor, mask-free gatherings in private homes while keeping outdoor masks only makes it worse.

Other things, it wasn’t really clear why they were at the last moment forced into 70% rather than the 80% they were originally scheduled for. I haven’t been sorry to be able to visit family in the last week, but it seemed hard to justify changing the roadmap in that way. Rightly or wrongly, it felt like it was driven by politics (and particularly by comparisons with NSW), not by health advice.

This time round felt more like an easing of restrictions done right (apparently they have to pass the pub test now…). They announced a date and time in advance (Friday, 6PM). They gave businesses and individuals a chance to prepare. None of this “Freedom at Midnight” business.

A return to one state

At 70%, rather than the planned 25km limit, the only boundaries were that metro Melbourne couldn’t go out into regional and vice versa. After tomorrow, we will once more be one state. That is something to celebrate.

And, what’s more, it comes on a potential holiday weekend. Tuesday is Melbourne Cup (yes, we get a holiday for a horse race), and traditionally many would take the Monday off to make it a long weekend. A month ago we would probably have expected to still be confined in Melbourne then. As it is now, I imagine quite a few Melbournites have taken the opportunity to get out somewhere in country Victoria, whether that’s to take a break, or to visit family, or whatever.

There will probably be far more than my midnight drivers. I wonder how many think they’re the only ones who’ve had this bright idea? I’m guessing the traffic will be quite bad tomorrow evening…

This time round I’m not planning to use the new freedoms the instant they’re available. Too much hassle. But I’m glad they’re there, and I do hope to be able to travel in regional Victoria sometime in November / December.

I hope the relaxation of restrictions will bring the peace and joy and feeling of a return to normal that my midnight walk did - but on a larger scale. I certainly enjoyed the time I spent in the Australian Alps in November / December last year, and may well want to visit them again this time round.