Australia must come to terms with the Delta variant being here to stay and accept that COVID zero is not possible, the NSW Premier has declared.
Gladys Berejiklian’s blunt assessment came on a dark day for NSW on Thursday, with another record spike in case numbers, the lockdown of regional areas extended and hopes of extinguishing the virus shot down.
She said returning to COVID zero was unrealistic for NSW, as the state confirmed 681 new local cases – its highest daily tally since the pandemic began.
“The challenge is that every state has to live with the fact that once you get to 80 per cent double doses and your population is allowed to live more freely, that the Delta variant will creep in, because we are so connected,” Ms Berejiklian said.
She said other states and territories would have to accept that “we can’t live in our bubble forever”.
“We can’t pretend that we will have zero cases around Australia with Delta,” she said.
NSW also confirmed another death on Thursday, bringing the total fatalities in its current outbreak to 61.
A man in his 80s who had received one dose of a vaccine and had underlying health conditions died at St George Hospital.
‘Can’t live in a bubble’: Premier
Ms Berejiklian is sticking to her promise that virus rules will ease once NSW hits six million vaccinations.
NSW is close to reaching that target, with 5.5 million shots administered – 53 per cent of eligible residents have had a first dose.
The state’s lockdown is officially set to end on August 28, although Ms Berejiklian has repeatedly refused to outline her plans beyond then. She maintains that Sydneysiders will “live more freely”, but has refused to elaborate beyond that.
“While high vaccination rates gives us opportunity to live more freely, it is not a way that we should get cases down, we need to look at every opportunity we have, especially in areas of concern, of what we can do,” she said.
She said once borders reopened and when there was a prospect of international travel, Australians would need to “co-exist” with Delta.
“To assume that forevermore there will be zero cases around Australia is, I think, an assumption nobody can really make at this stage.”
While times were difficult, Ms Berejiklian said she could see “the light at the end of the tunnel”.
Berejiklian ‘being realistic’: Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed that position on Thursday afternoon and said COVID zero has “never been a goal of Australia.”
“I think the Premier is being realistic, given the seriousness of the Delta outbreak in NSW,” Mr Morrison said.
“And whether it can be achieved in Victoria and the cases we are seeing down there are the extension of lockdowns – time will tell.
“What we are seeking to achieve is cases minimised as far as possible.”
Non-compliance not the issue in NSW
Amid a crackdown on non-compliance, particularly in Sydney, deputy chief health officer Dr Marianne Gale admitted this week’s alarming spike in infections wasn’t down to rule-breakers.
“One of the major drivers of the higher case numbers that we’re seeing in the areas of south-western Sydney and western Sydney is larger households,” Dr Gale said.
She said new cases were mostly among young people, often essential workers, who were passing it on to household contacts.
“Those people that provide essential services, who work in aged care, work in disability, who work in healthcare settings, who work in factories, work in shopping centres. And so, transmission is happening between workplaces and households,” she said.
“For the vast majority of people, it’s not anybody doing the wrong thing. It’s what we are seeing with the Delta variant that is so highly transmissible.”
Lockdown extended for regions
Ms Berejiklian said there was some hope for a return to COVID zero in regional NSW, even as its lockdown was extended on Thursday to match the August 28 deadline for greater Sydney.
“There are vast areas of regional NSW where there are not any cases but everybody would appreciate and expect us to take a precautionary response given we have the opportunity to get down to zero cases,” she said.
Health authorities are particularly concerned about outbreaks in western NSW.
Deputy Premier John Barilaro has backed the decision to keep the whole state locked down until at least August 28, after more cases in regional areas.
“This is why it is right to stay in front of the curve, in front of the spread, and keep regional NSW in lockdown,” Mr Barilaro said.
The central coast and Shellharbour regions will be reclassified as regional for a soon-to-be-implemented NSW travel permit.
Delays for test results
Western NSW residents have reported major delays in test results. In Cobar, some residents had waited five or six days for results.
One woman who was in Dubbo during times of concern and then displayed symptoms said the mobile number she was told to text for results was twice replaced with a new number.
When she called a phone line for people waiting more than three days for test results, it either went to voicemail or cut out.
The Dharriwaa Elders Group in Walgett – which Ms Berejiklian has said is “of enormous concern” – has called for more data on rates of COVID-19 vaccination of Indigenous people.