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Why Victoria’s public health restrictions weren’t in vain

  • Professor Margaret Hellard AM
  • 21 Aug 2023

Lockdowns and other public health restrictions made for difficult times in Melbourne during 2020 and 2021. But the sacrifices we made saved thousands of lives, writes Burnet Institute Deputy Director, Professor Margaret Hellard AM.

If you lived in Melbourne during 2020 and 2021, you probably look back on that time unfavourably due to the lockdowns and other public health restrictions enacted to reduce COVID-19 transmission. You may have memories of being unable to see friends and loved ones. It was difficult for many people in many ways.

But as hard as it was, the sacrifices we made during that time were not in vain; they saved thousands of lives.

Now that we have effective vaccines against COVID-19 and more than 80 per cent of Australians are vaccinated, it’s easy to forget that we once had virtually no options other than isolating ourselves as much as possible. Public health restrictions, including lockdowns, helped keep us safe and protected those who were most at risk.

Preventing deaths and serious illness

Burnet Institute modelling of Victoria’s public health restrictions found that the measures employed from August to November 2021, including the Delta variant lockdown, averted more than 120,000 hospital admissions and prevented more than 5000 deaths.

The measures included a careful approach to re-opening, and achieving a high rate of community vaccination. Public health restrictions were informed by the best available evidence to reduce COVID-19 transmission at a time when we had low levels of vaccination.

They bought us time until the vaccination rate was high enough to reduce deaths and hospitalisations and prevent the health system from becoming overwhelmed.

Would voluntary behavioural change alone have been as successful?

Burnet modelling accounted for the probable effect of voluntary behaviour change, including mask wearing, physical distancing and people restricting their own movements. While we found these behaviour changes were important in reducing COVID-19 transmission, in the absence of widespread vaccination they were less effective than government-enforced restrictions. The ‘group effect’ of lockdowns and other public health measures was vital.

COVID hasn’t disappeared

Thanks to COVID-19 vaccinations and treatments, drastic public health interventions like lockdowns are no longer needed, but we shouldn’t underestimate the risk COVID-19 still poses. This winter, Victoria is averaging five deaths a day due to COVID-19 – significantly more than from influenza.

In the absence of mandatory restrictions, and with most people already vaccinated, we must rely on voluntary behaviours to curb the epidemic. Happily, Burnet’s current and previous work suggests that keeping up to date with vaccinations, staying at home when unwell, wearing masks during waves of infection and ensuring adequate ventilation will reduce the impact of COVID-19.