We need to adopt rules that reflect the risk in each region

As Victorians, we need to stay positive and optimistic about the future, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question some of the decisions that are being made to manage the coronavirus pandemic.

Forest regrowth in East Gippsland after the summer fires.Credit:Joe Armao

Too many of the decisions being made by city-based politicians and bureaucrats fail to acknowledge the fundamental differences between life in metropolitan areas and regional communities.

Coming off years of drought and summer bushfires, we are hurting too many people unnecessarily in regional Victoria with some of the restrictions described in the Premier’s latest road map.

Every job is worth fighting for. Every job is worth saving. Because it means one less job will need to be created as we move to the recovery phase from this virus.

Family businesses, in particular, are the foundation block of our regional economy and many won’t be there to reopen under the Premier’s road map, which strangely lumps Gippsland into the results achieved in Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong.

When you consider that Wellington and East Gippsland shires cover the same land mass as Belgium, it’s time for localised rules and municipality-based solutions to this wicked problem.

Let me stress, no responsible person is suggesting open slather. But we have already proven in regional areas that we can safely operate many more hospitality and accommodation businesses with social distancing, hand sanitiser, customer limits, face coverings, testing and people staying home if they are unwell.

Other states with low case numbers like regional Victoria aren’t destroying their economies in the same way. We need to adopt rules that reflect the risk in each region.

For example, there’s no reason whatsoever why Gippsland, the Mallee, Goulburn Valley and the north-east shouldn’t be offering "locals only" sit-down meals to get our restaurants, pubs and clubs operating again with reduced numbers. Flash your licence at the door, follow all the rules, and help keep more people working locally until we can safely invite our much-loved Melbourne friends to return for a visit.

Under the Premier’s road map, we are many weeks away from achieving that and only if case numbers drop in other parts of regional Victoria, including the major provincial centres.

If we can have a large hardware chain servicing thousands of customers every week in every regional store, with no community transmission, I’m confident our hospitality sector can manage 40-50 customers a night in regions with low case numbers.

Under stage two restrictions we did restart dining very successfully with no outbreaks and if we don’t do it again soon, we risk losing that workforce to states where jobs are available now.

And remember, if you don’t want to go out, because you are vulnerable, have pre-existing health issues or think it’s too risky, then keep ordering takeaways.

There is an element of risk in everything we do, and every decision we make. Some people ride trail bikes or choose to parachute out of aeroplanes because they manage and accept the risks involved, while others wouldn’t dream of such activities.

It is impossible for the state government to manage all risk in our lives and there need to be elements of personal responsibility and decision-making restored as soon as possible.

The current rules are the equivalent of closing the Princes Highway between Orbost and Cann River because of a car crash on the Monash Freeway. Conversely, it’s like closing the Royal Botanic Gardens because there’s a bushfire at Wilson’s Prom. The rules don’t make sense to people living in communities where physical distancing is built into everyday life.

There has to be more consideration of regional variations when you acknowledge that 294 postcodes (mainly in regional areas) have recorded no cases of coronavirus in the past fortnight.

It is frustrating and disappointing at the moment, but I must stress there’s plenty of positives in our regional communities to be confident about.

The agriculture sector has turned around with good rains and residential construction is booming in many towns. We’re likely to see more Victorians recognise the opportunity to live and work in regional areas in the aftermath of the coronavirus.

But we just need to get more businesses operating with COVID-safe plans and more people back to work as soon as possible.

We are all in this together but that doesn’t mean we will all be affected in the same way. This is not a time for political point-scoring but it is a time for sensible decision-making with input from the regions.

Darren Chester is the Nationals member for Gippsland.

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