Sydney’s ever-growing Covid hotspot list exposes NSW government’s lockdown failures
Each day’s list of Sydney exposure sites reveals another weakness in New South Wales’ lockdown strategy and the failure to provide clear guidance about what is really expected of citizens.
This failure has become particularly acute now the hotspot has moved to south-west Sydney, where English is a second language, many of the workers are in face-to-face jobs or trades and often living from paycheque to paycheque.
The stubbornly high numbers of people out in the community while infectious are not due to lawlessness in south-west Sydney.
It’s the mixed messages from the top, driven in part from ideology that NSW wants to be seen as the state that can achieve the high-wire act of putting the economy first, while keeping the virus at bay.
This led in the first week of the lockdown to entrepreneurial Bondi cafe owners organising a margarita trail for takeaway drinks. Crowds of people turned up. It was within the rules.
Sydney citizens continued to go out to shop at department stores and get takeaway coffees in large numbers – until the new Covid case numbers shot up, fear took hold and the warnings became more urgent.
Berejiklian and her chief health officer, Kerry Chant, continue to exhort the citizens of Sydney to “do the right thing”, “get tested” and “stay home”. “Don’t go browsing”, “shop with purpose”.
But workers continue to go to work, many in their workplaces.
The problem for NSW is it has steadfastly refused to define “essential work”, leaving confusion for both employers and employees.
Instead of providing guidance or even firm rules, the premier has said people should know what to do. “Don’t go to work unless it really is essential,” Chant said two days ago.
The financial support for both businesses and employees should make it easier for business owners to make the difficult choice to close and help employees desperate to continue to support their families, but surely some guidance or even firm rules would help.
What casual employee is going to tell an employer that they can’t come to work because they are not really essential, running the risk of getting dropped from the roster?
But NSW has instead left it to the individual and the employer. A quick scan of recent exposure sites reveals this approach is not working.
In Fairfield, an office, Law and Order Office Work, has been named as a site all day from 5-10 July presumably after an infected staff member attended. A visa firm, Australian Visa Now, was also open for the same dates, all day. Ikea was on the list earlier after a casual staff member attended while contagious. Retail and department stores remain open for face-to-face shopping despite the widespread availability of online shopping and click and collect. None of these businesses have done anything wrong, it was all within the rules.
When this is raised with the premier, she says businesses should know what is really essential.
It’s true, as Chant noted, that many new exposure sites are now supermarkets and petrol stations, which would remain open and need staff under Victoria’s definition, but if less essential businesses were closed, health officials would be able to target these risk areas and work out how transmission is occurring, given the Delta variant is more contagious.
The latest exposure sites also suggest problems are emerging in the construction industry.
New clusters have been identified at allied businesses: an excavation and asphalting firm and a concrete supplier adjacent to each other in Greenacre.
There has also been a case of a painter travelling to Goulburn from western Sydney for work. So far there is no news on whether this resulted in further spread.
The premier rejected a suggestion that it close down government building projects like Westconnex and the light rail on the basis that Covid-safe protocols were in place at building sites in Sydney.
But while this worked in the last outbreak, new thinking and more stringent controls might be needed for the Delta variant, where fleeting contact has cause transmission.
If the government needs any proof about how mobile the workforce is in south-west Sydney and how many intend to keep going to work despite living in a hotspot, it need look no further than the enormous queues that developed at the drive-through testing centres in Fairfield after the government announced that Covid tests were required every three days for workers leaving the local government area.
That’s a measure of the potential risk of spread the government is trying to manage.
The second problem emerging is infectious people visiting GP clinics and pharmacies in south-west Sydney.
Perhaps it is due to language barriers that people sick with Covid are turning up at clinics without first phoning ahead and making arrangements. Perhaps they don’t know what alternatives are available through health lines and telemedicine.
Chant suggested the sudden tick-up in exposure sites involving pharmacies could be due to GPs not allowing face-to-face appointments, which suggests a real problem.
It all points to a failure to communicate more clearly.
Berejiklian is constantly having to manage the economic urgers in her cabinet who subscribe to the primer minister’s view in the last lockdown that anyone who has a job is an essential worker.
The Delta variant may require tougher measures, sooner. At the very least it requires clearer communication from the government.