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If any other Australian state or territory was facing a COVID-19 outbreak of the kind NSW is now confronting, they would already be in lockdown.
That the Berejiklian government is instead allowing businesses to stay open and people to leave their homes should give hope to lockdown-weary Victorians that there may be another way.
Melbourne is emerging from its latest lockdown.Credit:Eddie Jim
Other state premiers and chief health officers have adopted an “abundance of caution” as their North Star throughout this pandemic, but Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett said NSW is taking a “fundamentally different” approach.
“It doesn’t mean that if it works in NSW it will work everywhere, but it certainly tells us it is possible,” she told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
In announcing Sydney’s latest public health measures to contain an outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which spread from an eastern suburbs shopping centre, Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her Health Minister Brad Hazzard warned the situation was serious and fast evolving.
Yet, in rejecting the template adopted by other mainland states – where a handful of COVID cases are met with a fast, hard and preferably short lockdown – Berejiklian is sticking to the philosophy that, so far, has separated NSW from the rest.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is resisting the urge to lock down Sydney in response to the latest COVID outbreak. Credit:Nick Moir
“We have always said we won’t burden our citizens unless we absolutely have to,” she said. “We ask people to make individual decision on their own circumstances. We have put these rules in place, there will always be exceptions, there will always be certain situations which, perhaps, every single health order doesn’t cover. We rely on people’s common sense as much as what the health orders say.”
Instead of issuing public health directives to keep people in their homes and businesses and classrooms shut, the NSW government is urging its citizens to wear masks and avoid travelling to and from suburbs where they know the virus is circulating.
It is an appeal to reason, rather than a resort to heavy regulation.
University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely, whose modelling influenced the Victorian govenment’s response to last year’s second wave, welcomed the NSW message.
“They are trying to gain compliance by a sense of volunteering,” he said
However, Professor Blakely questioned some of the NSW settings, describing as “bonkers” the permission for people to still go to gyms.
He is circumspect about what the ultimate lesson from Sydney will be.
“At this point in time, I would say the chance of NSW controlling this is a bit less than 50/50,” he said. “If they achieve that, that will be great, but that doesn’t prove this is the best decision-making.
Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely.
“There is a chance they will succeed. If they succeed, that doesn’t mean they got it right, they might have just been lucky.
“You would need to have this experiment another 10 times to confidently conclude they got it right. That is the conundrum with COVID.”
Professor Blakely said a defining quality of COVID-19, as observed by infectious diseases experts around the world, is its “stochastic nature”. The randomness with which some cases become highly infectious and some cases not at all makes the outcome of any outbreak difficult to predict.
The public health dilemma faced by all governments is whether to lock down early or risk having to do so later, for longer and at a greater cost, when an outbreak has spread beyond control.
Wellington was on Wednesday placed under level two pandemic restrictions after it was discovered that a Sydney tourist infected with the Delta strain visited the New Zealand capital.
On the same day, the Victorian government announced a further easing of restrictions from the lockdown imposed a month ago.
Professor Bennett noted the contrast in tone adopted by the NSW and Victorian governments at the start of their respective outbreaks.
Where both governments stressed the seriousness of the situation and highly infectious nature of the COVID-19 variant they were dealing with, NSW has backed people to do the right thing instead of issuing broad, public health directives to ensure they do.
Professor Bennett said the NSW approach is less prone to “punitory creep”, where public health rules become more draconian as an outbreak worsens.
“This is public health communication 101,” she says. “The community is your public health intervention. You need leadership but you need participation.”
The Berejiklian government is taking a significant gamble. If Professor Blakely is right, its odds are no better than a coin toss. The only certainty is that, if Sydney wins, Victoria and all other states stand to benefit.
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