From Covid success story to delta tragedy, Australia’s most populous state reveals the perils of complacency in the face of a highly infectious variant. It also likely means the end of the travel bubble as we knew it. Justin Giovannetti reports.
New South Wales’ experience with Covid-19 had been very similar to that of New Zealand. Australia’s largest city and the surrounding state had beaten back the virus and lived a largely pandemic-free life. Until June 11. On that day everything changed with a single case.
Large parts of Greater Sydney are now in their second month of restrictions and nearly 300 new infections are being recorded daily as the coronavirus continues to gain ground in the state. Epidemiologists now expect that Sydney’s Covid-free days could be over for good as the premier has conceded that they’ve all but lost control.
With cases now expected to keep circulating until at least November in Sydney, a renewed bubble with Australia before Christmas seems increasingly unlikely, with the New Zealand government ruling out quarantine-free arrivals from the state, and very likely from the country as whole, if Covid-19 hasn’t been brought under control.
The current cluster, which has grown to thousands of cases and 350 hospitalisations, began on June 11 when a limousine driver transported an international Fed Ex aircrew to hotel quarantine. He tested positive for the delta variant five days later, after spreading it through the community for four days.
Officials in New South Wales activated the system they’d used through the pandemic. Unlike other states that had relied on sharp lockdowns to end infections, the state’s approach used contact tracing to get ahead of infections and restrictions only when necessary. It worked well with the first wave of Covid-19, stumping critics.
Prime minister Scott Morrison had held up New South Wales and premier Gladys Berejiklian’s approach as the way to go, chiding other state leaders for economically expensive lockdowns. But according to Tony Blakely, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Melbourne, that system wasn’t ready for the delta variant, which is dramatically more infectious than the first strain of Covid-19.
“This time last year they had the best contact tracing outfit in Australasia. And that actually worked, but they probably got a bit complacent and proud. It became politicised that the New South Wales approach meant you could do it without lockdown. It worked last year, but they failed to account for delta,” said Blakely.
Contact tracers were overwhelmed within days. The time between someone getting infected and being infectious had been cut in half with the variant, giving tracers only a day or two to find contacts. The virus jumped ahead of them, moving with essential workers into the city’s lower income suburbs.
“That was the initial failure. But that’s history now,” Blakely said. “What they tried to do then was bring it under control with a lockdown and it’s very hard outside of Sydney to understand how effective that lockdown really is.”
Most Australians are now under some form of restriction or lockdown, while the country has cut its number of returnees from overseas to a quarter of what New Zealand accepts. New South Wales’ outbreak has been directly linked to an outbreak in neighbouring Victoria, which sent that state into lockdown.
Not all of Greater Sydney is under lockdown. Suburbs have been locked down when significant clusters have been detected, while adjacent neighbourhoods have been kept under a system closer to what would be level three restrictions in New Zealand. More locked down areas have been added over time.
Essential workers can travel between suburbs, but are tested every other day. According to Blakely, the policies have kept the growth of cases down to about 4% per day. That’s good, but it’s still increasing rapidly.
“They kind of let the genie out of the bottle this time,” said Michael Baker, an epidemiologist based at the University of Otago in Wellington.
“If they start to see an exponential curve they could see thousands of cases a day, with dozens of deaths. And their borders are porous, so that will keep leaking out to neighbouring states. The best they can manage now is keeping cases to a moderate rate, get vaccines out and then transition to managing the virus.”
The state’s premier has now taken to urging people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. While official policy is still a return to elimination eventually, the message has started shifting. At a press conference on Friday, Berejiklian told reporters that elimination was now unlikely. “We know that, given where numbers are, given the experience of Delta overseas, we now have to live with Delta one way or another, and that is pretty obvious,” she said.
The plan now, according to Blakely, is to ride out the storm, hopefully until November, when vaccination rates start to outpace infections. Until then, it’ll be a game of whack-a-mole, with postcode lockdowns to keep parts of the city open while others shut down.
“For them to actually turn it around in the next few months and go back to elimination would require something magical,” he said. “In all likelihood, New South Wales will not achieve elimination from where they are now, they will become the first part of Australia that learns to live with the virus.”
That spells further trouble for the travel bubble with Australia. Jacinda Ardern said that at the end of the current eight-week pause on travel with the country, she will not reopen as long as the virus is not contained in the community.
“We’ll want to see where New South Wales is at, at the end of September. But it’s fair to say that while we’re at this space and time, where we are vaccinating our general population, we will not expose them to quarantine-free travel with a state that has Covid in circulation in the community,” the New Zealand prime minister said yesterday.
Public health expert Nick Wilson from the University of Otago said the situation in New South Wales “looks grim” but there are lessons for New Zealand: Lock down early when there’s no clear link to the border, support people generously in lockdown, vaccinate essential workers and do everything feasible to accelerate New Zealand’s vaccination programme.