IT STARTED off as a joke.
In the wake of the COVID-19 restrictions country people talked about passport control coming out of the capital cities to allow those in rural areas to escape the onerous lockdown provisions in place primarily to stop the spread of the disease in densely populated urban areas.
However, the dangerous flare-up of a second wave of cases in Melbourne over the past week has sparked serious debate about the idea of different levels of restrictions within a single state, given the diverse degrees of risk of the virus.
Victorian premier Dan Andrews, the most hard-line of all the state premiers in regards to COVID-19 restrictions acknowledged as much when he said there could be harsher constraints placed on the six municipalities currently hot-spots for the virus.
Restrictions reverted this week to tighter levels once more across broader Victoria which has brought on the calls for a tiered response from some rural residents who say their COVID history puts them on par with other states and territories that have wound back regulations.
Many rural shires have not recorded a single case of the virus, and the last cases in numerous others was in early April, putting them on par with the Northern Territory, which is now well on the way on a return to normality.
This has led to the considerable groundswell of support for a system managed by local government area that would see rural Victorians enjoy greater freedom under the proposed arrangements flagged by the state government earlier in the month while all metropolitan and semi-rural municipalities near major centres work on a stricter system until the level of new infections comes back under control.
Let's get it clear, from a pure medical point of view, the entire state going back onto harsher controls is the quickest and most effective means of getting things back in check, but as we've seen throughout the entire lockdown process compromises are made between health and other factors such as the economy.
Could a model based on local government areas rather than state boundaries work?
The Western Australian example has shown it is possible, albeit with a different set of physical parameters, with far fewer roads in and out of regions than in relatively densely populated Victoria.
Even the Queensland government is differentiating the risk, with its borders closed to those from municipalities with high risks of COVID but open to those from areas where there have been few cases.
The next question is - is a move to different parameters worth it for those in areas with low levels of the virus?
Without proper checks and balances it is simply going to result in the very people from metropolitan areas that need to be staying put coming out to regional and rural areas with COVID-19 a potential unwanted passenger.
While it is always difficult balancing economic realities and the best health outcomes the Victorian government has missed a trick in imposing stricter measures on day-to-day life, such as the number of people gathering at a family home, while still allowing overnight visits out of region..
Coming into school holidays, a restless Melbourne population cannot be blamed for looking to get out of the city where they have been cooped up for months, but such a move, while generating invaluable funds for the regional tourism sector, is also likely to risk the chance of infection spreading back out to the regions.
A better model would be to allow restrictions such as the number of patrons at restaurants and pubs, limits at sports training and household gatherings to go up in regional areas.
This could easily be monitored through measures such as a licence check at restaurants where only locals would be served.
Those arguing for such a move say it would allow regional hospitality businesses a chance to begin the recovery process, however those offering accommodation would still be largely left in the cold.
Those in favour of an easing of rules in rural areas say it is a common sense move, recognising the inherent differences in risk between urban living, where public transport and crowded shopping centres give frequent chances for the disease to spread and country life, where adherence to the 1.5 metre social distancing rules is seldom difficult.
However, in unwinding his bush constituents early, Mr Andrews runs the risk of generating an 'us and them' mentality within the state.
There is also the potential that any easing of regulations in the country would be seen as a red rag to a bull to city voters already weary of their lock-up and publicly expressing their reluctance to comply with a second round of restrictions.
With the likelihood of similar second wave spikes in infections a possibility in other states in coming months other leaders will be watching carefully as to how the situation is handled.
There can be no doubt the Victorian government missed a trick by caving into the public pressure to emulate what was happening in other states and opting to take the handbrake off too early - the loss of some freedoms is much harder to take than just the maintaining of the status quo.
How they handle themselves over coming weeks and whether a more regionalised approach is implemented is something all of Australia will be monitoring closely.
- Gregor Heard is ACM's national grains industry reporter, based in Horsham in rural Victoria.
The story Are regional COVID-19 concessions a viable option? first appeared on Farm Online.