Australia

From brothels to knackeries, the intricacies of lockdown astound

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good spreadsheet. Excessively so, some would say.

A deserted Parliament station in Melbourne at 9.30 on Wednesday morning.

A deserted Parliament station in Melbourne at 9.30 on Wednesday morning.Credit:Joe Armao

But the spreadsheet released by the Victorian government this week seeking to clarify which Melbourne workplaces will remain open, shut, or a confusing mix of both, will surely go down as one of the most bizarre documents produced in Australian history.

Still watermarked “OFFICIAL-SENSITIVE”, the nine-page document is titled simply enough as “Stage 4 Restrictions”.

But the simplicity ends right there.

What follows is a lengthy four-column table that seeks to chop the Victorian economy neatly into 20 sectors, classifying each as either “closed for on-site work”, “open for on-site work” or, somewhat enigmatically, the subject of “restricted operations or industry specific obligations”.

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Basically, it’s a sort of “yes, no, maybe” list, which seeks to clarify which businesses are affected by stage four lockdown, which starts on Thursday.

We know that from today, much of Victoria’s manufacturing facilities will be shuttered, including furniture, textile and domestic appliance production. However, the spreadsheet says production lines will remain open for 24 specified goods, including the production of food, medical equipment, medicines, coffins, chemicals, paper, fertiliser and heavy trucks.

In sombre summary: coffins and caskets are a yes; coffee tables are a no.

Construction remains largely open, subject to new restrictions. When work is being done on buildings more than three storeys in height (excluding basements, mind you), a maximum of 25 per cent of the site’s normal workforce is allowed on site. If the building is three storeys or fewer, however, a maximum of five workers is allowed – the coronavirus presumably being of varying risk at different altitudes.

Importantly, construction on schools and hospitals continues as normal, regardless of height.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:

Hairdressers are shut, as are car washes and photographic film processing shops (confirming the surprise continued existence of such businesses). But it’s fine for locksmiths to open their doors, along with laundromats and dry cleaners. You can’t wash your car or drive it to work, but there is no excuse for a crinkled shirt at that next Zoom meeting.

For the record, travel agencies are shut, not that it matters much.

Only tradies can go to Bunnings, unless you order online first, and then you can still click and collect.

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You can still grab a comfort chocolate bar, or two, from a convenience store, but not a specialist chocolatier, it would appear.

Cafes and restaurants are takeaway only, but roadhouses will stay open to serve truckies.

Supermarket distribution centres, listed confusingly under “manufacturing”, can continue to operate, but must be staffed at 33 per cent less than their peak workforce capacity.

Book publishing offices are shut, but magazine publishing is OK. Bank branches are open, but rental agencies are shut unless supplying a “permitted service or industry”.

Architects, consultants and other professionals are ordered to work from home, unless they’re conducting “research where Australia has a competitive advantage and which cannot be shut down and requires on-site attendance”. Good luck interpreting that.

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Work performed on-site at museums, parks, sports, performing arts and gambling sites must be ceased. Except horse racing and greyhound racing, of course, which can continue under “strict biosecurity protocols”.

Indeed, the animal world continues much as before. On-site work is still allowed for vets, animal shelters, sale yards, knackeries and artificial insemination services. The Pig Services Centre in Bendigo, which supplies diagnostic services and vaccines to pork producers, will remain open, we are reassured.

To really top things off, though, the spreadsheet concludes with a grab-bag category of “other services”, which amusingly bundles together the fate of religious places of worship and brothels, prostitution services and strip clubs.

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Importantly, up to five people can continue to attend a religious place of work to facilitate the broadcast of ceremonies. No such provision is made for brothels, however, which must presumably organise for the web-streaming of their services from alternate locations – in an appropriately socially distanced manner, of course. Er hem.

Look, no one ever said formulating an appropriate government response to a deadly pandemic was easy. But did it really have to be this hard?

Economist Saul Eslake says that, even before the harsher Victorian penalties regime for stage four breaches, the Victorian government had been adopting a disproportionately punitive system in response to coronavirus compared with other states.

The very harshness of Victoria’s initial penalty regime may even have contributed to an oversized relaxation of good social distancing after the first lockdown, as Melburnians yearned to escape the harsh yoke of stringent restrictions.

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A different approach, says Eslake, would be to use moral suasion and positive messaging to appeal to people's better instincts to maintain good hygiene to protect the vulnerable in their community.

That is not, as it turns out, the Victorian way.

Many businesses will not survive this. And whether the highly prescriptive and sometimes confusing nature of Melbourne’s stage four lockdown adds only another layer of fear and confusion remains to be seen. We must hope it is a success in containing the virus.

Either way, the economic damage is clear. With a quarter of the Australian economy now in lockdown, our national recession is set to tick over into yet another quarter.

Sending much love to all in Melbourne.

Jessica Irvine is a regular columnist.

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