Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has defended his consultation with industry over the state’s strict road map and flagged room for some common sense flexibility based on the feedback, despite ruling out any drastic changes.
Mr Andrews pointed to changes for regional Victoria to allow two groups of 10 indoors at cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs, with indoor dining previously having been ruled out.
The state recorded 28 new cases on Thursday – the lowest in almost three months – with the majority in aged care and healthcare workers, as well as 33 cases linked to an Afghani community in Melbourne’s south-east and just 22 postcodes with more than 10 cases.
“The moment … we think we can open up faster without risking it being a short-term thing, then of course we would update,” Mr Andrews said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison continued to apply pressure on Mr Andrews on Thursday, reiterating he was keen to see Victoria open up and believed that the state’s plan to reopen was accelerating.
“I said a few weeks ago when they announced the plan that I hoped that this was the worst-case scenario … I’m pleased to see that they are moving more quickly than that,” Mr Morrison said. “Not quickly enough, I’m sure, for many in Victoria. But that’s what Dan Andrews and I are working on at the moment. Just how we can get this happening.”
Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng also indicated there was some room for flexibility on the average five and zero case targets required for the final three steps to reach COVID-normal in the state’s plan.
“There is going to be a lot of judgment, so it isn’t going to be exactly five that we are aiming for, if it was six [and] it was a closed community outbreak in aged care … then we would be happy with that,” he said.
Questioned by The Australian Financial Review on the level of consultation, Mr Andrews said the government was taking feedback on board and was willing to make common-sense tweaks where it was safe to do so.
“That’s not to say though, if I could be so bold as to point this difference out to the Fin and others … consultation and getting the answer you wanted are not always the same thing,” Mr Andrews said at his daily press briefing.
“You can be listened to and people have been, but that doesn’t guarantee everybody gets exactly what they want because many would like us to open up yesterday,” he said.
Mr Andrews was asked whether he personally attended any of the 150-plus round-table consultations with industry ahead of the plan being revealed.
“Those matters have been appropriately delegated to the Treasurer and the Minister for Jobs and Industry Recovery,” Mr Andrews said.
“I’ve got one or two other things to get on with. I didn’t go to too many town hall meetings during the fires, I left that to those who were in charge of the operational response, just like I haven’t necessarily been spending all my time … I lead a big team, a capable team and they have engaged with industry in unprecedented terms.”
Mr Andrews also denied the government had determined a zero target strategy ahead of consultation with industry.
“That’s not accurate in any way,” he said. “There have been detailed consultations and we will continue to have consultations they have informed our decision making.
“If you look at regional Victoria, I think most restaurateurs, publicans, cafe owners didn’t expect that there would be able to be 20 patrons inside in two groups of 10. That came from feedback, as well as detailed public health advice.”
Wes Lambert, CEO of the Restaurant & Catering Industry Association, was pleased to hear Mr Andrews “common sense comments in relation to potentially mirroring the surprise announcements for regions on indoor dining”.
However Mr Andrews dismissed much room for flexibility to fast-track reopening of retail outlets, after Wesfarmers CEO Rob Scott urged a September 28 restart, a month earlier than planned, arguing that local staff could be assigned to local stores to limit movement.
“Those settings are much less about staff movement … and much more about customer movement,” Mr Andrews said. “And again, there’s a cumulative and aggregate impact, you can have an individual setting that is as COVID-safe as any setting can be.”
“That’s not the issue, it’s about letting all their customers out of their homes to go and frequent that place and do everything they do on the way there and on the way back.”
Mr Andrews reacted angrily to queries reported in the Financial Review that the government may have cherry-picked its modelling team, who are on the record advocating for eliminating COVID-19.
“Any suggestion that I or a member of the government hand-picked this is just utter nonsense, utter nonsense, not productive, not helpful, not based in fact, seriously.”
Mr Andrews also played down claims by former Victorian Treasury economist Sanjeev Sabhlok, who says he quit to keep speaking out against the Andrews government’s policy blunders.
“That may be his version of what occurred, I’m not briefed on the accuracy or otherwise of that, he’s entitled to his views,” Mr Andrews said. “But you, your readers and all Victorians should be assured that we receive frank and fearless advice from the public service, each and every day.”
Education Minister James Merlino announced a $26.7 million package including to help kindergarten children transition to school but ruled out a push for grade six children to return with the preparatory to year two students and VCE students on September 28.