Australians can strap themselves in for continuous outbreaks that put the country at risk if the “flawed” quarantine system isn’t fixed, experts have warned.
As the New South Wales Northern Beaches coronavirus cluster grows, with 30 new cases announced on Sunday morning.
Other wait-and-see emergency measures, in effect until Wednesday, include no more than 10 people in homes until midnight on Wednesday, plus bans on singing, dancing and chanting.
The ‘four square metre’ rule is also back in effect.
Health experts are calling for the city to enter a hard lockdown and make mask-wearing mandatory, before the outbreak gets out of control.
On Saturday morning NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that the Northern Beaches area would be locked down from 5pm until midnight on Wednesday, with people asked to stay home except for essential reasons including: exercise, shopping, and compassionate grounds.
She also asked those living in greater Sydney to “please” stay home.
University of NSW public health expert Bill Bowtell said the Berejiklian government’s decision not to make masks mandatory was “extremely wrong”.
“It has to be asked why the NSW government refuses to accept the scientific evidence,” Adjunct Professor Bowtell told The New Daily.
Masks must be used. End of story.”
While NSW had a much better tracing system than Victoria at the start of the pandemic, the state must now learn Victoria’s lessons and implement a wide lockdown, Adjunct Professor Bowtell said.
“The idea that the government is not issuing orders to lockdown Greater Sydney, as happened the other week in SA, has to be seriously questioned,” he said.
“Every day you wait compounds the situation. A delay at this end means weeks at the other end. That’s the lesson from Victoria.”
Quarantine system needs tightening
Professor Bowtell said the federal government needed to step in and fix the hotel quarantine system.
Under the Biosecurity Act 2015, the federal government had the emergency powers to take any necessary measures to prevent and control COVID-19.
But they are letting the country down by not implementing better practices for hotel quarantine, Adjunct Professor Bowtell said.
“You don’t have anyone in control and responsible for quarantine and airports. There needs to be a director of quarantine,” he said.
University of New South Wales epidemiologist and World Health Organisation expert adviser Mary-Louise McLaws said the NSW outbreak was a “tipping point”, with a flawed quarantine system that needs fixing and contact tracers still yet to identify patient zero.
We are at a tipping point and this is quite serious and it has all happened because the quarantine and the entry into the country isn’t quite tight enough,” Professor McLaws said.
The quarantine system for overseas arrivals has failed to consider “the issue of human behaviour”, the COVID-19 expert told the ABC.
“You can’t have a system that requires everybody to do the right thing,” she said.
“They either don’t know what the right thing is if they have arrived, and human nature is often we think we can beat the system and so that needs to be tightened up.”
Professor McLaws said the outbreak could “potentially go on for at least another seven days because seven days is an average incubation period”.
“The early [cases] that were picked up a number of days ago at the beginning of the week, they may well have infected a second generation,” she said.
Sydneysiders should mask up, stay home, and get tested if they are concerned they may have been exposed to the virus, Professor McLaws said.
“What we need to do is improve our safety by every time you enter the public transport system, in the airport, in the bus terminal, in the plane, in the bus, wear your mask,” she said.
“Wear your mask at home if you are sharing with an elderly family member … please try and keep windows open to ventilate … and let’s hope the people that live in this glorious area of Sydney in the beaches haven’t travelled very far outside that area to see other places.”
A new system of “rapid testing” for overseas and interstate travellers, and for flight crew members currently exempted from quarantine, is also needed, Professor McLaws said.
As a health care worker for months we did nothing but go to work and went home. We could not risk being a vector for this airborne virus.
And yet, the people who are confined in a plane and breathing the same aerosolised covid particles… https://t.co/YhxnuRTWdE
— Dr Eric Levi, FRACS (@DrEricLevi) December 18, 2020
“If we added rapid testing for everybody without exception, including overseas crewmembers … we could then put them safely away from the general community.”
Christmas in quarantine for some travellers
There is “significant risk” COVID-19 has “seeded” across Greater Sydney, Victorian health minister Martin Foley told media on Saturday afternoon.
If this spread is confirmed “we will have no choice but to declare all of Sydney a red zone”, he said.
“That will mean anyone who has been in Sydney will not be allowed into Victoria”.
Currently, anyone wishing to travel from NSW to Victoria must apply for a special permit.
Mr Foley urged Sydneysiders to “to please reconsider your plans” and not come to Victoria, warning that they risked spending Christmas in hotel quarantine.
Victorians planning to travel to Sydney should reconsider their plans or be prepared to stay in New South Wales if the red zone is declared, he said.
Western Australia has gone further than Victoria, reimposing its hard border with NSW.
Anyone hoping to travel from NSW to WA must apply for a special exemption.
People travelling from NSW into Queensland will be required to fill out a border declaration form, and anyone from Greater Sydney and the Central Coast is being asked to get tested for COVID-19 and self-quarantine until the results come through.
In Tasmania, travellers arriving from Great Sydney will have to quarantine for 14 days, while those arriving from the Northern Beaches are banned from entering altogether.