For months now I’ve heard the narrative - presented with all the nuance that Twitter encourages - that calling a snap 3 - 5 day lockdown is the one infallible way to defeat a Covid outbreak. That led directly to claims that the current situation in Sydney (and NSW more generally) is largely due to them defying this orthodoxy for political reasons. And yet here I am in Melbourne, nearly three weeks into a lockdown that did all the right things and still has no end in sight.

Entering Lockdown 6.0

It was little more than a week after the end of Lockdown #5. We had recorded our first “donut day 🍩” - zero cases. Restrictions had been eased very cautiously, and for many (including me) the official end of lockdown had meant very little change to what we could actually do. But there was hope - the previous outbreak had required 12 days of lockdown rather than the five originally called, but it appeared contained and there was talk of further easing of restrictions the following week.

Then that afternoon a case was reported. Further testing raised it to eight. The following day, a week’s lockdown was declared.

Victoria did just about everything right according to the official “snap lockdown” playbook:

  • The authorities took it seriously.
  • A lockdown began little more than 24 hours after the first case was discovered.
  • Victoria’s default restriction levels, honed over five previous lockdowns, were well understood and fairly tight. They had in fact seen off two previous outbreaks in the past three months.
  • Since restrictions had been eased cautiously following the previous lockdown, there were fewer opportunities for spread than if we’d reached a more “CovidNormal” setting.*

* This meant that there were no large sporting crowds to worry about, as there had been in the early stages of previous lockdowns. The mighty MCG lay empty. However, one of the first things to resume post-lockdown had been in person schooling, and I gather transmission through schools was a major driver of early spread before that first case was detected.

Some other outbreaks

Since then, there have been a few places I know of calling snap lockdowns. Like Victoria, all of them reacted quickly:

  • The Australian Capital Territory: Case numbers and numbers of exposure sites rose quickly, and they extended the lockdown from one week to three weeks. It’s shown some signs of being contained (with many positive cases already in isolation), but we wait and see.
  • Northern Territory (Darwin and Katherine): Lockdown was lifted as planned when no new cases were found for a couple of days.
  • New Zealand: The first case was detected in Auckland last week. Since then case numbers have risen rapidly, with cases found in both Auckland and Wellington. Before detecting that first case NZ had had very few restrictions, so the conditions were right for significant spread. Lockdown has already been extended and may well be extended again.
  • Shepparton: Regional Victoria was released from the original lockdown #6 after a few days. Then we heard of a positive case in Shepparton, and, like New Zealand, one case quickly became many. It seems like it’s connected with one of the Melbourne clusters, though how it got to Shepparton is still unknown. As a result regional Victoria was put back into lockdown.

How’s our outbreak going?

The Melbourne lockdown was extended to two weeks, then shortly afterwards to four weeks. We’re now nearly three weeks in, and it’s become state-wide again.

To me, the first sign it could be more serious was a couple of days into lockdown when we recorded our then-highest daily case numbers for the year with (unsurprisingly) none of them in isolation while infectious. 29 cases might not sound like a big number to non-Australian readers, but when you have a largely unvaccinated population and are trying to drive numbers to zero it’s a big deal. And, as always, given the cases were there we’d prefer to know about them sooner rather than later so they and their close contacts can be placed in isolation and hopefully contain further spread.

One week in, it was reminding me more of the early progress of Sydney’s outbreak than I liked. There were mystery cases popping up. Some testing positive were already in isolation, but many weren’t.

We have now been in lockdown #6 longer than lockdown #5, and it’s clearly not contained like #5 was. But there’s more than that: Where the first week merely reminded me of early stages in Sydney’s outbreak, the current situation seems clearly worse than Sydney’s was when they first declared lockdown.

I hope we’ll still be able to bring it under control. We probably started lockdown with tighter restrictions than NSW, and in the last week have tightened restrictions twice (once to add a curfew and close playgrounds, then to close childcare and reduce the number of permitted industries).

However, I’m not feeling confident. It showed signs from early on of being a larger outbreak than the previous one, and it has continued to seem less contained.

Relying on contact tracing

The truth is that I don’t think the Sydney outbreak and the Melbourne outbreak are as different as they have typically been spun as. Before the Sydney lockdown was called, NSW were relying on their contact tracing. It had been called the “gold standard”, which has led many to mock the response, particularly Melbournites. However, as far as I can tell it was better than other states last year, and saw off outbreaks larger than other states faced without needing to go into lockdown.

We in Victoria learned from them and strengthened our contact tracing, which as far as I can tell has done the heavy lifting this year through one scare and the first three lockdowns. It may be that our early lockdowns meant fewer chains of transmission to track down and gave our contact tracers a better chance to get on top of it. And maybe the same applies to Sydney: an earlier lockdown would have given them a better chance to get on top of it. However, what is clear from the current Victorian outbreak is that contact tracing hasn’t been able to contain it as well as previous outbreaks, lockdown or no lockdown.

One of the scariest things I remember reading about the Sydney outbreak was a description of why they had to lock down. Basically, that the contact tracers had been able to track how it was spreading, but weren’t able to get in front of it and stop the spread. I found that scary because it suggested it might be more difficult than I thought for even a well resourced contact tracing organisation to get on top of an outbreak.

And that is something we’ve also been seeing: Yes, we’ve been able to link most daily cases to known clusters. But even those we mostly haven’t been able to get in isolation before infectious. Not to mention the cases with unknown source that have popped up in unexpected locations.

“We know what works”

I think there’s one commonality between all of NSW, Victoria, and New Zealand that hasn’t been noticed: Each of them in the first instance reached for measures that had been successful dealing with previous outbreaks. Yes, we can debate how much of that previous success was luck and how much was good judgement, but it’s not a completely unreasonable approach.

Perhaps this was unwise in the age of the more-infectious Delta. I believe both NSW and New Zealand were grappling with a Delta outbreak for the first time. Victoria did have prior experience - we were literally only a week out of lockdown after containing a previous Delta outbreak. But within a few days it became clear that the current outbreak probably was bigger than what we had dealt with before.

Still, the message to the public was “We know what works”. Here’s what Premier Daniel Andrews had to say as part of announcing lockdown #6:

We know that the Delta variant moves faster than anything our public health experts have seen before – and we know what we need to do to drive it down once again.

And here’s what NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on radio shortly after the lockdown commenced:

I know that, given Delta has not been in our community before, that that will be news that people will find deeply concerning. But I want to reassure people — the best place we can be right now is level 4, and that these measures have worked before and will work again.

I haven’t been able to find a quote from NSW saying the same thing, but the fact is still that they did choose an approach that had worked before. From what I’ve been able to find it seems they were aware of the greater infectiousness, but believed the risk was low so long as they could quickly isolate positive cases and their close contacts. More of those close contacts would likely test positive than with previous strains, but they would not be a threat to the community at large (for the record, this is similar to what we saw in Melbourne lockdown #5).

In the case of NSW, their measures clearly haven’t worked. The reliance on contact tracing has been replaced by lockdown restrictions that have tightened over the weeks. They’ve already broken Victoria’s peak daily case number and peak 7-day average from last year, and I don’t know if they’ve peaked yet. They have had high vaccination levels during the outbreak, and at this point it looks like they will need to vaccinate their way out of it.

I very much hope all of ACT, NZ and Victoria will be able to contain their outbreaks. But it will take time.

In our case, I’d love to believe that lockdown will end as scheduled in a little over a week, but think there’s just about zero chance of that. The outbreak doesn’t look contained right now. However, even if we have peaked and started to contain it, daily case numbers are higher than for any of our previous lockdowns this year, so I expect it to take time to drive those numbers down.

It turns out Covid control isn’t a vending machine where you put in appropriate restrictions and receive a contained outbreak and steady resumption of normal life. What worked last time may not work so well next time.

Should this change the narrative?

This isn’t just about Australia. Countries round the world have struggled to control the variants and in particular Delta (even the countries that were comparatively successful controlling the original).

Here in Australia I’d say many, including me, just expected that we’d be able to contain new outbreaks in the way we’d contained previous ones. As a result, it was easy to blame NSW for doing the wrong thing when they struggled to contain their outbreak.

However, what if Melbourne’s outbreak proves unable to be contained? (and, again, I really hope this doesn’t happen, but I’m not confident). I already questioned the snap lockdown doctrine in a previous post. Back then our lockdowns may have “worked”, but of necessity they took more than a few days to discover the full extent of the problem and contain it.

When writing that post, I certainly knew it was possible for an outbreak to grow out of control, lockdown or no lockdown. I was literally seeing it in Sydney. From that post:

If each person continues to infect more than one person in spite of lockdown, daily numbers will continue to grow - just not as fast as they would have without lockdown. And even if it gets to the stage where, on average, positive cases infect less than one person, daily case numbers will still take time to come down.

And so I should have known that it was possible for the same to happen to Melbourne. But I don’t know that I really expected it: I too had fallen for the optimistic “We know what works, we contained it in a couple of weeks last time, so we’ll probably do it again”. And I think I still had that expectation even while the outbreak was reminding me uncomfortably of early days of the Sydney outbreak.

Should our one grow out of control, I’m sure NSW will still be blamed, on the principle of “If they’d contained their outbreak better Victoria wouldn’t be in this position to begin with”. And yes, it’s 100% true that they could have gone into lockdown earlier and made lockdown restrictions tighter. But I think Victoria’s experience shows that wouldn’t have guaranteed the outbreak being contained. Perhaps the real problem is that we have a considerably more infectious variant, and it’s difficult to control if contact tracing fails to contain it early?

And I also expect that someone, somewhere will be waiting to tell us all the things we did wrong. That snap lockdowns are still the perfect control mechanism, but they have to be done right.

“Lockdown fatigue”

The other day I let curiosity overcome my better judgement and went back on Twitter to try and find the narrative for why it hadn’t worked so well for us this time. A common theme was “Lockdown fatigue”.

Like all such narratives, it makes some amount of sense. The freedoms of mid-May, and the optimism that I think went with them, seem like a long time ago.

It’s winter, and we’re in the middle of our third lockdown in three months. There was little more than a week of limited freedom between #5 and #6. Last week we reached our cumulative 200th day of lockdown, and there’s no immediate end in sight. It’s hard to blame people for being a bit sick of it.

Really, “lockdown fatigue” is the kinder version of “Lockdown is the perfect solution, if only those pesky people wouldn’t keep doing the wrong thing”. And blaming people for doing the wrong thing has always been politically convenient when things aren’t going well (even at times when most of the spread has been people performing permitted activities).

NSW have frequently invoked it as case numbers have risen. For us, it was a constant theme during both lockdowns last year, and this time round our Premier made it the caveat to the “we know what works” message:

All the things we’ve done before, and they will work again, if people follow the rules, look after each other, and stay home.

Are more of us doing the wrong thing?

There have been plenty of anecdotes about rule breaking flying round, both major and minor. Last weekend there was a large anti-lockdown protest, large enough that with our case numbers it seems likely that some of those attending had Covid-19. The previous weekend there was a 69 person engagement party that we know a positive case attended. Both of these were very clearly against the rules, and part of the motivation for rule changes like re-introducing the curfew last Monday seems to have been to make it harder to do (already prohibited) activities.

I’ll say this: I’m pretty sure every lockdown I’ve seen people doing things I believed against the rules. Mostly in the outdoors and not large groups of people, so not things I’d consider very risky - but still against the rules. It’s certainly possible that lockdown fatigue has meant more wrongdoing and more sub-optimal decisions this time round, but I don’t think I’ve noticed it (though it’s worth noting I live in a more sparsely populated suburb and see fewer people anyway).

Given part of the concern has been the number of people outdoors, it’s worth noting that we’ve had lovely late winter weather the last couple of weekends. There would almost certainly have been fewer people if it had been 10 °C and raining. Like in previous lockdowns, I’ve been one of those people outdoors: Outdoor exercise is a permitted activity that I consider relatively low risk and a valuable coping mechanism.

There are stories of people meeting up outdoors, whether deliberately or accidentally, and stopping to talk. That’s much more likely to be against the rules. Maybe it’s happened more, but did it really not happen in previous lockdowns? We are social creatures, after all.

However, one thing that we know is very different from the last lockdown: Contact tracing has been much less effective at containing cases. This has consequences.

If there’s more Covid in the community, it’s more likely that people who do the “wrong thing” will end up catching Covid as a result. But it’s also more likely that people who do the “right thing” will end up catching Covid. As I put it in my last post:

The reality is that, whether in lockdown or not, many people will do “the right thing” and still catch Covid. Many others will do “the wrong thing” and not catch Covid. That may not be “fair”, but it’s the way the world works.

Consider the engagement party: If I understand correctly, it was on day 9 of the lockdown. By day 9 of lockdown #5, almost all positive cases were in isolation. Having a party would still have been against the rules, and would still have been unwise (particularly one of that size) - but it would have been much less likely to lead to spread.

Were there parties like that in lockdown #5 that we never heard about because they didn’t lead to spread? I have no idea. But “more wrongdoers have tested positive” doesn’t necessarily mean “A greater percentage of people have done the wrong thing due to lockdown fatigue and/or ‘selfishness’”.

I don’t recommend doing the wrong thing, and it would probably be easier to contain if fewer people did. But I think it’s too easy to build a narrative that that’s the main reason for spread, and I think that’s harmful. If an outbreak isn’t effectively contained wrongdoing may amplify it, but I don’t think it’s the main cause of this outbreak being larger than the last one. It seems it was bigger than the last one when first detected, and that it’s been harder for contact tracing to contain.

My observation is that most people do the right thing most of the time, and it’s unrealistic to expect much better than that. Even the most perfect lockdown strategy around has to consider real world effectiveness, not just theoretical effectiveness.

Taking too long to get tested

Another cause that has frequently been mentioned is that people have been taking too long between first displaying symptoms and getting tested. Again, this isn’t something new. Exactly the same concerns were raised during our long lockdown last year, during Sydney’s current lockdown, and probably other places.

I think one of the under-sung benefits of a lockdown is that it makes people take it seriously - and that can make them more likely to get tested and tested sooner. So I’d be surprised if we’re doing worse at it than in previous lockdowns.

Given a person is infected, the positive test is a good thing. The sooner we know someone has it, the better. Without that positive test to start from, contact tracing can’t do anything, and the related QR code checkins will sit in a database somewhere feeling unloved.

However, testing symptomatic people will never be able to stop those people spreading it before they showed symptoms. Testing people from suburbs of concern who don’t have symptoms may catch people before they are symptomatic. But without a high level of mass testing (which I think has been used by China?) only contact tracing can really ensure that people at greater risk of being exposed to Covid are in isolation before they are infectious.

So what’s the narrative?

Whether true or not, narratives are powerful things. I think Victoria’s current outbreak - as well as others across Australia and NZ - show that Delta is more infectious and more difficult to contain, even with a swift lockdown. I had hoped Australia and NZ would be sufficiently on top of it to keep lockdowns short and maintain the freedom we’d had earlier in the year, but maybe it was never realistic.

However, I think for many, the narrative will remain “snap lockdowns always work”. And that, if they don’t, the problem isn’t with the lockdown but with the way it was done.

As we’ve shown with two consecutive rule tightenings, there’s always something more that could be done. I gather NZ rules are in some ways tighter than ours. More generally, there’s always some restriction that could be tightened or better enforced. But whether those changes would actually make much difference to the end result is a different question.

On the NSW side, I think the narrative will probably remain “They went into lockdown too late, and even when they did it was really a mockdown rather than a truly effective lockdown” (even though I think the designated “LGAs of concern” with the highest case numbers are in some ways under tighter restrictions than Victoria was much of last year’s long lockdown).

On the Victoria side, I think the narrative will end up either “See, lockdown did work” (eventually…) or “Yeah, lockdown would work if everyone would just follow it”. In deference to our 200+ days this may be politely framed as “lockdown fatigue”, but not too many holding the snap lockdown doctrine will question it.

The saying “You only get one chance to go hard and go early” sounds a lot better before an isolated five day lockdown than before a third lockdown in three months. Let alone before a lockdown that’s already been extended to four weeks and will probably be extended again.

I’m not saying it’s the wrong approach: Our leaders are almost certainly correct that without those early controls we’d have guaranteed high case numbers and months of restrictions, and would eventually have had to vaccinate our way out of it. But it’s not a silver bullet.

At a high level, I’d say we’ve done all the right things, but that doesn’t guarantee success. All we can do is keep pressing forward and wait to see what comes next.