Gladys Berejiklian maintains she’ll ease some restrictions for Sydney at the end of the month, but leading epidemiologists are alarmed at the plan to loosen any COVID rules while cases continue to hit record highs.
The New South Wales Premier hopes to hit her self-imposed threshold of six million vaccinations by the end of August, but experts say it may be November before Sydney and New South Wales can properly emerge from its COVID lockdown.
“Delta is a disease of the unvaccinated,” University of NSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws told The New Daily.
“Even contemplating lifting any restrictions at this rate is failing to understand how many people you’d leave unprotected.”
Alexandra Martiniuk, epidemiologist at the University of Sydney, said public health experts “would not recommend easing restrictions when there’s a growing outbreak”.
“Our graph is going north, there’s increasing cases under the current restrictions. The only thing most of us would recommend would be tightening restrictions,” Professor Martiniuk said.
Sydney lockdown might not end with six million jabs
NSW recorded another 344 cases on Wednesday, only a slight dip from Tuesday’s record 356.
Ms Berejiklian says NSW still wants to get COVID cases toward zero, but has been laying the groundwork for slowly easing selected restrictions after hitting six million vaccinations.
“If achieved, there will be opportunities for us in parts of the communities where cases are low and vaccination rates are high for them to do more than they do today,” Ms Berejiklian said on Wednesday.
“That is what we are working towards and something our government is very keen to make possible.”
She also said she expected NSW to hit the 70 and 80 per cent vaccination rates, as set out in the Doherty Institute modelling, in late October and November respectively.
Ms Berejiklian said Sydney could only start “having a normal existence” at 80 per cent.
But while suffering record cases, NSW is also administering record vaccinations, with a whopping 106,000 on Tuesday, to a total of 4.755 million.
At that daily rate, NSW could hit the six million mark within three weeks – in time for the scheduled end of the lockdown on August 28.
That would be the equivalent of fully vaccinating about 46 per cent of the state’s eligible adults, or 92 per cent of adults with one jab.
But it’s unclear exactly what restrictions might be eased in Sydney at that milestone.
Ms Berejiklian would only say she’d asked health authorities to identify “low-risk areas”.
“The Premier has asked us for things that are very low risk that we potentially could look at,” chief health officer Kerry Chant said.
“The risk profile in different communities is different and it may be that we can do some things in some areas where they haven’t seen any cases.”
Dr Chant also told a parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday that widely reopening at 50 per cent would be “too premature” and said she had “not provided specific advice about any restrictions I would be prepared to ease”.
‘We’re being given up on’
Independent epidemiologists said achieving only that six million figure, in an environment of high and rising cases, wasn’t the right time to ease restrictions.
Professor McLaws, also a member of the World Health Organisation’s advisory panel on COVID responses, is in lockdown in Sydney.
She backed the current lockdown, saying it was clearly working because cases were not rising exponentially, but said more needed to be done.
“The idea of lifting restrictions in some places and not others fails to learn the lessons from Victoria’s lockdown,” Professor McLaws said.
“They were in lockdown for 100 days. We’ve been 47 days and I feel we’re being given up on. We need to be resilient and work towards zero, because we can’t roll out the vaccine fast enough while also battling the virus.”
Professor McLaws suggested more focus on workplace transmission, including government experts conducting more rigorous assessments of problem locations and recommending changes.
She’s also calling for far broader COVID testing at workplaces, including rapid antigen tests, and mobile vaccination units.
“All we’re witnessing is a trend of acquisition, transmission, acquisition, and the problem is people take it home. That cycle isn’t being broken, and one dose of vaccine won’t break it,” Professor McLaws said.
“I recommend the vaccine to everyone, but it won’t get you out of this outbreak. I think we’ll be in this terrible cycle until NSW changes its approach.”
‘Doesn’t make sense’
Professor Martiniuk, also under lockdown rules in Sydney, also believed six million vaccinations was not high enough to ease rules, unless case numbers also significantly dropped.
“People with one dose can still get and pass along COVID. It’s less than someone who’s not vaccinated, but they can still do so,” she told TND.
“Loosening or opening at this point just doesn’t make sense at all. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Professor Martiniuk said she thought Dr Chant and her team were “doing a good job under extreme pressure”, and that getting case numbers back toward zero was “feasible”.
However, she also said Sydneysiders should start preparing for the possibility that lockdown could remain until 70 or 80 per cent of NSW is vaccinated – which, as Ms Berejiklian said, could be November.
“I think we can’t open up until everyone is offered one. I’ve told my kids ‘I don’t think you’ll be finishing your school year’, and we need to prepare for that,” Professor Martiniuk said.
“I can’t see how children, particularly those under 12, will be protected enough if we’re having hundreds of cases a day.”