Two of Victoria’s most concerning Covid-19 cases were revealed to be false positives overnight, prompting speculation that Melbourne’s lockdown could end earlier than expected.
It comes as the state confirmed four new locally acquired infections on Friday, bringing the total number of cases in the outbreak to 65.
There were also two cases recorded from overseas travellers who are currently in hotel quarantine.
More than 49,400 test results were received in a 24 hour period and more than 24,000 vaccine doses were administered.
The cases that were reclassified overnight include two people were initially thought to have caught the virus through “fleeting contact” with strangers, adding to fears the virus was spreading more rapidly than previous outbreaks.
The cases include a woman who was previously understood to have acquired the virus at a Metricon display homes exposure site and a man who was thought to have contracted the virus at the Brighton Beach Hotel exposure site.
Now that they have been identified as false positives, they have been removed from the state’s outbreak number and any close contacts associated with them have been released from isolation.
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The reclassification comes as welcome news to Victorians, with some experts suggesting it could even lead to Melbourne’s lockdown being lifted.
University of Melbourne Epidemiologist, Professor Tony Blakely, told the ABC the development could mean the lockdown is lifted early next week, rather than the end of the week as previously stated by authorities.
“Things now look a little bit better and maybe we won’t need another week lockdown, but it’s impossible to predict that accurately,” he said.
Professor Blakely said so long as the state doesn’t see a rise in daily infections, then Melbourne would be in a good position to reopen.
However, he did note that other cases of “fleeting transmission” has still been discovered by health authorities, saying the state was “without doubt dealing with a more infectious virus” than had been seen in previous outbreaks.
There are still eight known cases where the virus has spread between people who have not directly interacted with each other.
The exposure sites where stranger to stranger transmission events have occurred include:
• One instance at the Telstra Shop in The Clarendon Centre, South Melbourne
• Two instances at JMD Grocers & Sweets, Epping
• Two instances at Doctors on Broadway, Reservoir
• Two instances at Woolworths in the Epping North Shopping Centre
• One instance at the Cragieburn Central Shopping Centre
The cases where the virus appeared to spread through extremely short periods of contact are believed to be one of the reasons for Melbourne’s lockdown extension, with authorities worried about how rapidly the virus would spread without intervention.
Though there are still multiple cases of concern, Victorian Opposition leader Michael O’Brien wasted no time in calling for an end to the “hugely damaging” lockdown after the false positive cases were announced.
“If the basis for the lockdown extension turned out to be false, it should end,” he wrote on Twitter. “Time for the Labor Government to be upfront with Victorians.”
Acting Premier James Merlino refused to confirm whether the reclassification of cases would have an impact on the length of the lockdown.
“Our answer on that hasn’t changed and nor should it. It is absolutely based on public health advice and that is assessed day by day, hour by hour,” he said on Friday.
“The proposition put forward by public health was that we needed this further seven-day period for Greater Melbourne to absolutely run this thing to the ground. That remains the case.”
Mr Merlino said Victoria “we cannot risk (the virus) running away from us”.
Experts shoot down ‘alarmist’ covid claims
Many health experts have taken issue with the language used by Victorian government officials to describe the Covid-19 strain, known as the kappa variant, that lead to the state’s outbreak.
On more than one occasion this week, chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton described the variant as an “absolute beast” and on Wednesday’s claimed it was in the “measles category of infectiousness”.
These claims have been seriously disputed by a number of health experts who say the Victorian government has reverted to “alarmist or doomsday-type” language.
Professor Greg Dore, an infectious diseases expert at the University of New South Wales, said it was wrong to say the strain was as infectious as measles and that it was spreading exponentially in Melbourne.
He said the strain spreads “like other variants”, including through aerosol transmission, with some exposures in short-duration indoor settings. He said it had the potential to spread exponentially, as all the variants can.
University of Melbourne Professor James McCaw, an infectious disease expert and member of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which advises the national cabinet, said this was not supported by the data he had seen.
“There is no epidemiological evidence that this virus spreads faster,” he told Nine Newspapers.
“There is no clear reason to think this virus is spreading in different ways. We need to be very cautious. We are on an absolute knife-edge in Victoria about whether we bring this under control rapidly or it develops further. But I don’t think it is helpful to seed alarmist or doomsday-type thoughts into the community.”
$500 cash bonus for Victorians
On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a disaster payment of $500 for eligible workers stood down without pay in Victoria.
The funding will apply to Commonwealth-determined hotspots across Australia for any lockdowns longer than seven days to “avoid any unnecessary hardship for Australians”.
The payment will be $500, made on a week-by-week basis, for people who normally work 20 hours a week or more, or $325 for those who work less than 20 hours.
Only workers aged 17 or older and employed before lockdown will be eligible, and they must be unable to work due to the restrictions in place in their home or place of business.
Workers will not be eligible if they are already claiming other special pandemic leave and they must self-declare they have liquid assets of less than $10,000.
“We are talking about somebody getting through the next week,” the Prime Minister said. “Who would normally be in an economic situation where every dollar counts.
“Where those have independent means of supporting themselves for a week then I think they would agree that reaching out for Commonwealth taxpayer-funded assistance is not something they would consider reasonable for such a short period of time.”
It comes after Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino repeatedly lashed out at the Morrison government for not doing enough to help Victorians during this time.
Earlier this week, Mr Merlino revealed he had asked the federal government “multiple times” for support for Victorian workers during lockdown but the “unrelenting answer” had been no.
“Victorian workers deserve more from the federal government and I am beyond disappointed that the answer from the Prime Minister and the Treasurer has been no.
“For the Prime Minister and the federal Treasurer to say ‘no’ is a disgrace and it should make every Victorian angry.”