Yarra Valley “caught up” in Metro Melbourne lockdown

The desolate streets of Healesville in last year's lockdown. Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS

Yarra Ranges Council is pushing the state government for the reclassification of non-urban areas of the shire as regional again as the entire municipality caught up in the latest metropolitan lockdown, despite having no local cases.

Council has written to Acting-Premier James Merlino and wants the State Government to reclassify the Ryrie and O’Shannassy Wards – and rural communities in the Chandler Ward – as regional and therefore be excluded from the metropolitan Melbourne Covid-19 restrictions.

This would see small townships such as Warburton, Healesville, Yarra Glen and more, move to lesser restrictions in line with regional Victoria.

Yarra Ranges Mayor and Ryrie Ward Councillor, Fiona McAllister, said that regional areas were caught up in the metropolitan Melbourne region’s lockdown because of Yarra Ranges’ status as an interface Council.

“Our mix of urban, hills and regional towns in the Yarra Valley makes our municipality one of the most unique in the state, which is something we’re very proud of,” Cr McAllister said.

“Unfortunately, it also means that our regional areas have been unfairly swept into the metropolitan classification for Covid-19 restrictions.

“Since the pandemic began, we have consistently had very low case numbers in the Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges, which are more reflective of regional Victoria rates, and data shows we’ve had no positive cases during this current outbreak.

“Our towns are isolated from Melbourne and we remain a rural community with a low-risk lifestyle, so we’re hoping the State Government actions our request swiftly.

“Being classified as a metropolitan Melbourne Council area makes sense only if you’re in our suburban areas of Mooroolbark, Lilydale, Chirnside or Kilsyth – Warburton, Millgrove and our outer areas are about as far from metropolitan as you can get.

“We don’t have the access to services, public transport or the population density in O’Shannassy, Ryrie or Chandler that our metropolitan counterparts do, and while we understand the blanket approach by the State Government to enforce restrictions, our regional areas have been suffering as a result.

“The lockdowns have also hurt our young people living in remote areas, with internet blackspots meaning some of our students are unable to access learning materials while being forced to study from home.

“This extends of course to residents who have been forced to work from home, where they don’t have a reliable internet connection given the area that they live in.

“We’ve seen and heard of businesses struggling to make ends meet, mental health calls increasing and people doing it tough in every corner of the metropolitan Melbourne area.

“Our metropolitan Melbourne classification also means that our agricultural businesses, local tradespeople and other businesses have been particularly impacted.

“Our local producers compete with businesses in the regional Victoria bubble, which are currently subject to fewer restrictions on operating.

“We also have a substantial casual workforce in our hospitality and winery industries that are really hurting from this classification, who are losing income and may not have jobs to come back to if the businesses they work at are unable to survive at the hands of further lockdowns.

“There has been a great level of support from the State and Federal Government to help us navigate lockdown, of course, but having the regional parts of Yarra Ranges under the same lockdown rules as the inner city is wearing our communities thin.

“Between the regional make-up of our outer towns and our low case rate through the pandemic, we hope that the State Government earnestly considers our proposal.”

Council made the same plea last year when it passed a motion to formally request to reclassify smaller townships of the Yarra Ranges as regional at its 8 September meeting. One that was ultimately shot down by the State Government.

At the time, Cr McAllister said the Yarra Valley was often considered regional for tourism and funding purposes but “strangely enough” not for Covid-19 restrictions. This is evidenced through the government’s latest Regional Tourism Support Package, announced on Sunday 6 June, that will see more travel vouchers distributed to support the tourism sector.

Despite being named a regional package, the Shire of Yarra Ranges and Mornington Peninsula Shire were both included with Victoria’s regional local government areas and will benefit from the funding.