Just over two weeks ago the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, declared “a national emergency”. On Monday, she floated the idea of having hairdressers open again – timing still to be decided.
NSW is again looking at ways to wriggle out of having a tough and effective lockdown as the way of conquering its Covid cases.
Consider the contrast. Victoria locked down again three weeks ago with just a handful of cases. When the cases flared again the premier, Dan Andrews, locked down again.
Then there is NSW. Instead of a quick lockdown when the first case emerged on 12 June, the state dallied.
It waited two weeks after the first case, then went for lockdown-light before realising it really did have to insist that people stayed home, didn’t go to work unless in critical industries and stopped hanging round coffee shops without masks.
Even now, in what Berejiklian insists is the strictest lockdown in the county, Bunnings remains open to all and takeaway food outlets are open, with customers going inside the stores.
But despite there being evidence that going hard works, the state continues to flirt with relaxing regulations. The latest is having vaccinated hairdressers back.
It’s an extremely confusing message that probably owes more to the pollsters than the health officials.
“I’m sure if you asked the majority of people in our state would you look forward to more freedoms than we have now, I think the answer would be yes,” Berejiklian said at her Monday conference as she dangled the enticing idea of a return of one-on-one personal services, provided both customer and service provider are vaccinated.
All the signs are this outbreak is getting worse, not better. Parts of Penrith have been added to the hotspot LGAs with a harsh lockdown. It’s spread to Newcastle, Armidale and Tamworth and authorities are bracing for problems in Byron, implementing a snap lockdown after a man in his 50s spent time in the community while infectious after travelling from Sydney.
Over the last week NSW has recorded between 260 and 319 cases a day. Deaths are increasing and the outbreak in Sydney’s west and south-west is showing no signs of easing.
The case numbers will probably get worse after a record 133,000 tests on Sunday.
But Berejiklian is now banking on vaccination as a yellow brick road out of lockdown, even though the numbers say it will be months until we reach substantial rates of vaccination, especially in the communities where Covid-19 is currently running rampant.
The political problem is Sydney is now a tale of two cities. There are no cases to speak of on the north shore or even in Sydney’s east, where the outbreak began.
But in Sydney’s west and south-west some communities are rife with Covid-19. Of Monday’s 283 new cases, 80% were in the eight hotspot LGAs. More than 50 were in Canterbury-Bankstown. They are areas with diverse ethnic populations, large households and much younger populations, who have had less access to vaccines.
Some communities have a high mistrust of government. Many need to go to work in critical industries: supermarkets, freight, food processing, takeaway (yes, KFC and Maccas are essential services, apparently) and healthcare.
Melbourne had precisely the same problem when its second outbreak whipped through the north-west of Melbourne.
Authorities went into communities, worked with leaders, moved infected families into hotels, and provided food parcels and other essentials to stop people in hotspots moving around or having relatives visit.
Critically, Victoria provided a $450 payment if a person got a Covid test because the advice to stay home until you get a result is daunting for someone living hand to mouth. NSW has no such payment.
Chief health officer Kerry Chant insists NSW has health officials working with communities – without providing any detail of what they are doing.
Without financial support to find out if they have Covid and stay home, NSW’s efforts are bound to struggle. The number of people infectious in the community in NSW will remain stubbornly high.
Disaster payments are not the answer because they are only available if a person loses 20 hours of work. These are people who have work and keep going despite being sick.
NSW needs to micromanage the problem where the problem is.
The other scenario is what we have now – a slow, ineffective lockdown that will go on for weeks or months, with periodic breakouts around the state.
It also means NSW will become an island state for the foreseeable future.
Berejiklian acknowledged that “when the largest state has a threat the way it does you cannot pretend it’s not going to impact the nation. You can’t pretend it’s not going to impact what other states choose to do. You can’t pretend it’s going to not impact other states no matter how hard you work.”.
So what is Berejiklian’s vaccine-driven path out of lockdown?
“The New South Wales government is committed to respecting the national cabinet’s wishes in relation to the Doherty report,” she said.
“We’re not intending to overstep our mark beyond what that report allows all the states to do. That report obviously allows certain freedoms at 70% vaccination, at 80% vaccination, and I want to say respectfully that we respect the national process,” she said.
“But please know that once we hit 50 to 60%, lockdown plus easing some restrictions is very different to what the Doherty report says must happen at 70%,” she said.
Is that 50 to 60% of the whole state, 50 to 60% of a postcode or of an LGA? Is it one jab or two?
The vaccination rates vary widely across Sydney depending on age profile and socioeconomic status. For instance, as at 2 August, 44.8% of the eastern suburbs had had at least one jab, while 24% are fully vaccinated.
In contrast, in south-west Sydney, the worst, 33% had had one jab and 14.6% are fully vaccinated.
Will there be vaccine passports or proof required before getting or giving a haircut? Who is going to issue those and will it be lawful to demand vaccine status?
And what of those essential workers – mainly from low-vaccinated areas – who will be moving around the rest of the city?
Berejiklian says that getting the jab will mean “all of us can look forward to having greater freedoms in September” but I fear it is yet another case of NSW trying to avoid doing the hard yards of lockdown.