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City's 5km limit could go to 20km, with models being run 'as we speak'

Bolstered by increased ADF presence in Melbourne's 'ring of steel', an outbreak in Shepparton will likely not prevent regional Victoria from significantly easing restrictions on Sunday.

Victoria on Thursday recorded six new cases all linked to known outbreaks, which Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng said was "about as encouraging as it gets at this point in time", despite signalling his ongoing concern at the number cases with an unknown source.

Professor Cheng said modelling to be completed by Friday was considering factors such as increasing the five-kilometre movement limit, in place since August 2, to 20 kilometres before what the Premier said would be "significant changes" on Sunday.

"We're looking at everything at the moment," Professor Cheng said.

"There's models being run as we speak and they should be off the computer in the next day or so. It does take a little bit of time to do. We're considering all sorts of things in making those decisions."

Additional drive-through testing sites were opened in Shepparton on Thursday but long queues extended into the afternoon as local authorities expected about 2000 residents to be tested.

About 1300 tests were done on Wednesday in response to the outbreak sparked by a man who failed to tell contact tracers until this week that he had visited Shepparton while infectious on September 30. The Shepparton outbreak has been linked to cases at Chadstone shopping centre, Kilmore and Frankston, all stemming from a cleaner who withheld information from contact tracers. To date 59 people have become infected.

Of about 350 Shepparton results received by Thursday, none were positive, although Professor Cheng said more cases would almost certainly be picked up in coming days.

On Thursday there were 340 close contacts and 70 secondary contacts in self-isolation and Goulburn Valley Health chief executive Matt Sharp, whose team has led the local health response, said test numbers would continue into the thousands by Friday.

“And that’s exactly what we want to get the most recent information about how prevalent COVID-19 is in the community,” he said.

Amid pressure from business groups for the government to provide clarity on reopening timelines, Treasurer Tim Pallas revealed on Thursday that the state budget was $6.5 billion in deficit at the end of the past financial year due to the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic and the summer's bushfires.

The Premier admitted tight checkpoints around Melbourne would be vital to protect the regions and for NSW and South Australia to reopen their borders to regional Victoria.

City of Greater Shepparton chief executive Peter Harriott said maintaining strong checkpoints around Melbourne was a difficult task.

“The reality is the regions need people to come from Melbourne whether it’s supplying supermarkets or transporting goods,” he said. "We’re a major supplier of the nation’s food.”

Mr Harriott said the council, alongside Regional Development Victoria, had recently taken steps to ensure cafes were checking patrons had not come from Melbourne.

Many businesses chose to shut voluntarily in Shepparton on Thursday as a precaution against spreading the virus.

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The government is considering measures such as increasing hospitality capacity, reopening more retail stores and increasing gatherings at events in regional Victoria on Sunday.

Some epidemiologists have questioned the five-kilometre restriction as case numbers have fallen, although Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has said the rule prevented COVID-19 cases spilling over into previously unaffected areas of Melbourne.

Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton.

Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton.Credit:Justin McManus

Deakin University epidemiology chair Professor Catherine Bennett said she could not see the logic or epidemiological evidence that a larger radius was safer than removing any travel limits altogether in metropolitan Melbourne, assuming Melburnians would still be restricted from travelling to regional Victoria for non-essential reasons.

“It would have to be a really good argument for what that would add over the risk to confusing people and risking their compliance,” she said.

She said she questioned how realistic it was to police a 20 kilometre zone, and said rapid "third ring" responses to outbreaks seen in places like Shepparton was far more useful in stemming the virus spread.

“If you get to contacts of contacts quick enough, it doesn’t matter how far they moved last week,” she said.

Melbourne University epidemiology professor Tony Blakely said he supported the government's approach of a midway step between stage two and three of easing, but said whether any travel rule changes had merit would need to be viewed against what else was announced on Sunday.

“[The five kilometre rule] strikes me as one of the things that could be released,” he said. “But everything we release carries some risk."

Professor Blakely said he could not weigh in on whether the distance of a travel restriction mattered epidemiologically because he did not have access to Health Department data and modelling.

Professor Cheng warned that the number of "mystery cases" with an unknown source – the most concerning criteria for health authorities – was still too high at 15 in the fortnight to October 12.

"That's the issue, and that these mystery cases are distributed through a lot of different LGAs [local government areas]," Professor Cheng said, which prevented authorities from targeting testing to one area.

Victoria's existing road map aimed for five or fewer mystery cases in the preceding fortnight before freedoms such as the reopening of outdoor dining would be allowed, though that could be revised on Sunday.

  • With Rachael Dexter
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Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.

Benjamin is The Age's regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.

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