Regional Victoria wears the blunt arm of the lockdown law

The Australian Open isn’t the only tennis getting knocked around by Victoria’s latest COVID-19 lockdown: in fact, compared to those readying for the 2021 country week tournament, the professionals at outbreak epicentre in Melbourne are getting away lightly.

Country week was supposed to begin on Sunday at Swan Hill – coronavirus free and more than 300 kilometres north west of the nearest confirmed cases. Teams and families from mostly regional Victoria had booked as many as 1200 hotel rooms and were expected to pump at least $2 million into Swan Hill economy.

Nagambie’s empty main street – around 130km north of Melbourne – on day one of snap lockdown in Victoria on Saturday. Credit:The Age

On Friday, organisers from the Swan Hill Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club were forced to swallow the loss of $40,000 in perishables and cancel.

“We agree with a lockdown to get on top of it, but the issue is there are no cases in country Victoria, so why are they using such a blunt instrument to cure a problem in Melbourne?” said tournament convenor John Brookshaw.

Victorian leader of the Nationals Peter Walsh, whose electorate of Murray Plains takes in Swan Hill, said his office had been fielding calls since Friday afternoon from residents wondering the same thing.

“The [statewide lockdown] is not proportionate to the issue at all and it severely disadvantages communities that are three, four, five hundred kilometres away from a case in Melbourne,” Mr Walsh said.

Mr Walsh said the latest lockdown would be the last straw for some businesses who had already weathered border closures, travel restrictions and full-scale lockdowns despite their communities having never recorded a case.

“I don’t think [the Andrews government] have any confidence in their ability to manage contact tracing,” he said.

Independent state Member for Mildura Ali Cupper said the blanket restrictions would be difficult for regional people to accept.

“The Stage four restrictions come as a shock and I know and feel the frustration in our community given we are so far removed from Melbourne where the current outbreak is,” she said.

“The level of severity of these restrictions is something we have not experienced before and it will turn people’s lives upside down.

Mildura MP Ali Cupper said the Andrews government needed to outline a more nuanced city vs country approach to COVID-19 restrictions by Wednesday. Credit:Eddie Jim

While it was guaranteed to be “pretty tough few days”, Mr Cupper said the Andrews Government needed to evaluate the outbreak’s spread and outline a more nuanced city-country approach by Wednesday.

She suggested grading different regions of the state according to their individual risk. A better grading would mean lighter restrictions and vice versa.

Australian Hotels Association president David Canny said he was concerned about the mental welfare of regional Victorian venue operators.

“We understand there’s a risk but the response has got to be proportionate to that risk,” he said.

“Again we look at NSW, they have risk and they shut down suburbs and try to keep business going where they can. This again hasn’t happened. It’s like it’s the easy way – just do it everywhere. How do we explain to the guys in Horsham, Echuca, Mildura: ‘Sorry, you’re included in this’.”

Regional communities were able to return to a semblance of normal life during the 2020 months-long lockdown because of the police and army “ring of steel” around Melbourne that buffered the virus-free country from the infected suburbs.

Premier Daniel Andrews said on Saturday it was not possible to roll out a comprehensive ring of steel in short time.

“If you have soft rules in the country and you have a much harder lockdown in a city – and you haven’t got time because it’s a short, sharp lockdown to get a comprehensive ring of steel up – people from Melbourne will go to the regions [and] they could potentially take the virus with them,” he said.

“I know that it’s a bit counterintuitive, [and] people say ‘well, we’re a long way from Melbourne and there are no cases’. Yes, that’s how we want it to stay.”

Chief executive of Murray Regional Tourism Mark Francis said the border communities had the added complication of NSW government hotspot directives, which were still being changed late into Friday night.

He called on authorities from both sides of the river to run scenario planning that could be rolled out – and understood by everyone – the moment any hotspots or lockdowns were declared.

No boats on Lake Nagambie on Saturday. Credit:The Age

Another problem was the “time lag” between press conference and on-the-ground clarification, he said. One example involved accommodation providers who were told to shut down unless they had unspecified “other reasons” to stay open.

“Those reasons are clearer now,” Mr Francis said. “If you had people already in you could keep housing them. If you needed to open for essential workers you could do that too. But none of that was clear.”

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