Melbourne in a world of pain as coronavirus lockdown bites

Public buckling under the strain of the imposition of latest severe restrictions

An empty Degraves Street in Melbourne. Stage four coronavirus restrictions are in force across metropolitan Melbourne including a 8pm to 5am curfew, people must remain within a 5km radius of their homes and an hourly limit on exercise has been introduced. Photograph: Erik Anderson/EPA

The man who sent Melbourne into one of the world’s harshest lockdowns hit a milestone recently.

The premier of Victoria, Dan Andrews, gave his 50th straight coronavirus update – a grim daily briefing on the new case numbers and deaths as well as the number of tests taken. The toll is beginning to tell, politically and personally.

The premier looks exhausted and that is finally something we all understand. Melburnians are also showing signs of lockdown fatigue and this has the government worried. As part of a new offensive, it is now using humour – a light-hearted advertising campaign – to urge us to go the distance.

It feels like a classic carrot and stick routine. We are most of the way through a six-week lockdown, which began on August 2nd, (we had already endured three weeks of restrictions immediately before this) that allows us to leave home only for essential reasons. We have a nightly curfew, a 5km travel radius and a limit of one hour of daily exercise.


To enforce the measures, police have set up “a ring of steel” around the city with checkpoints anywhere and everywhere. Drones have been deployed in some suburbs to police the curfew. The wearing of masks is mandatory.

A general view of Bourke Street in Melbourne during August.

Breaches are costly, with a $1,652 (€1,022) on-the-spot fine for ignoring the curfew, and a $200 (€124) fine for failing to wear a mask. For those who break their isolation orders, there is a $4,957 (€3,065) fine.

The only light moments in this heavy-handed lockdown have been some of the excuses provided to police for flouting the law – driving 50km for cigarettes, feeding a horse, or going for a drive out of boredom.

One of the more popular was the story of the construction worker who drove 32km for an Indian takeaway that cost him a $1,652 (€1,022) fine. The restaurant later offered him a year’s supply of his favourite butter chicken to ease his financial pain.

Melbourne is in a world of pain, economically and emotionally. This latest round of restrictions is set to cost the country between $7 billion (€4.3 billion) and $9 billion (€5.6 billion). Unemployment is also predicted to rise higher than previously forecast, hovering somewhere between 10 and 13 per cent.

Anxiety and depression

The emotional fallout is equally staggering. The Australian Psychological Society says its members are working non-stop to cope with demand from people presenting with anxiety and depression.

Beyond Blue, a not-for-profit organisation that address mental illness, tells the same story. Over the month of July, about 64 per cent of calls and webchats to the Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service came from people in Victoria.

It was the highest volume of traffic from one state or territory since the pandemic began. The government has responded by doubling the number of subsidised sessions it provides through its Mental Health Treatment Plan. It has also announced the establishment of 15 new mental health clinics, nine in the city and six in regional Victoria.

Like the rest of the country, Melbourne went into its first lockdown in March. Shortly after, the dominos that punctuate the rituals of our lives began to fall. The Grand Prix was cancelled as were the ceremonies to mark Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day, a national day to remember the war dead, which is as celebrated here as St Patrick's Day is in Ireland. But an even bigger blow was to be delivered.

Melburnians love their sports, especially their footy (AFL– Australian rules football), it’s like a religion here. Punters pay huge money to secure tickets to the Grand Final, a game that attracts more than 100,000 to the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground. It’s been like that since the first game was played here in 1859.

The rise in Covid-19 cases in Melbourne, however, forced the code interstate with Victoria's 10 teams now in hubs in Queensland and Western Australia. For the first time in its history, the final – now scheduled for October 24th – is unlikely to be played in Melbourne. If proof was needed of our changed world, this has been it for the city's army of footy fans.

A food court at Melbourne Airport on September 1st.

The sadness is that we almost had the virus beaten in June. Then came the fateful government decision to use untrained security guards to police returned travellers quarantined in taxpayer-funded hotels. Genomic sequencing has shown that a significant proportion – if not all – of Melbourne’s second wave cases may be traced back to quarantine breaches at hotels.

Details of the bungled quarantine that have been emerging from a $3 million inquiry into the matter make for chilling reading. A family of four at the centre of this second wave may have inadvertently infected staff after their two distressed children spread faeces on the walls of their room. The family was taken on a supervised walk by security guards following the event. Three hotel staff tested positive several days later, starting a deadly chain of events.

Cool comfort

As the number of infections began to climb, reaching a daily peak of 753 on July 30th, the premier declared a State of Disaster. Melbourne was plunged into Stage 4 lockdown. Some of the restrictions are confounding. You can travel any distance to meet your lover – an early decision to impose a ‘bonk ban’ was quickly reversed – but you cannot travel more than 5km to visit a parent.

As someone who has lived outside Ireland for 38 years and has never missed an annual trip ‘home’ in that time, the ban on international travel has a serious impact..

Alan Joyce, the Dubliner who heads Australia's national airline Qantas, has suggested flights will not resume until at least July 2021 and happily Ireland is on the list of the 10 likely permitted destinations. It's cool comfort for the thousands of Irish here who may be unable to return home for Christmas.

Australian citizens and permanent residents currently have to apply for an exemption to leave the country because of Covid travel restrictions. More than 90,000 applications have been made since the ban came in on March 25th, and only a quarter have been granted.

Dan Andrews’ decision a few weeks ago to extend the state of emergency by 12 months has been met with fierce opposition. It will take a lot more than a light-hearted advertising campaign to sell that particular pill.