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10 million Australians back in lockdown

In the past few days over 10 million Australians have been plunged back into lockdowns, as fresh outbreaks of Covid-19 spread across major cities.

In the past few days over 10 million Australians have been plunged back into lockdowns, as fresh outbreaks of Covid-19 spread across major cities.

The emergence of these new clusters has highlighted how vulnerable Australia still is during this phase of the pandemic, largely as a result of our low vaccination numbers.

The current crisis forced the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to announce a radical overhaul to the vaccine rollout on Monday night.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on how Australia ended up on the verge of a national lockdown and whether the federal government’s new plan goes far enough.


Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Show Transcript

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am

In the past few days, over 10 million Australians have been plunged back into lockdowns as fresh outbreaks of Covid-19 spread across major cities.

 

The emergence of these new clusters has highlighted how vulnerable Australia still is during this phase of the pandemic, largely as a result of our low vaccination numbers. The current crisis forced the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to announce a radical overhaul to the vaccine rollout on Monday night.

 

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton, on how Australia ended up on the verge of a national lockdown and whether the federal government’s new plan goes far enough.

[Theme music ends]

 

RUBY:
So, Rick, the entire country seems to be on a knife's edge at the moment, at risk of another national Covid-19 outbreak. So, how did this begin? 

 

RICK:
Well, it all began with the limousine driver in Sydney who was transporting aircrew, and he tested positive for the Delta Covid-19 variant on June 16, which was a Wednesday. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“Tonight, an investigation into why a professional driver was on the Covid frontline, picking up international aircrew while untested, unvaccinated, even, unmasked.”

 

RICK:
And the next day it was confirmed his wife had also been infected. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“The driver, who tested positive to Covid, has already infected his wife and an elderly woman at a local cafe.”

 

RICK:
Now, the exposure sites were identified, you know, across Sydney's eastern suburbs, including the popular Bondi Junction shopping centre. And the very next day, 700 people were told to go and get tested and self isolate. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“From cinemas to supermarkets, butchers to bakers, contacts will number in the thousands…”

 

RICK:
Now, from there, what health officials described as the Bondi cluster grew with a handful of cases popping up every day. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“A primary school student is among ten new covid cases in Sydney as the Bondi cluster rapidly grows…”

 

RICK:
But by the 20th of June, we were actually seeing mystery cases not linked to the Bondi cluster at all. In fact, There was concern that NSW parliament could be an exposure site after the Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, was identified as a close contact of a positive Covid case. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“And the health minister who is himself now in isolation as a possible close contact…”

 

RICK:
And around the same time, four national MPs went into isolation after attending a pizzeria in Paddington, including the Agriculture Minister, Adam Marshall, who ended up testing positive for Covid-19. 

 

Archival Tape -- Adam Marshall:
“A lot of you have asked ‘what does it feel like to have it’? I guess at the moment it sort of feels like being hit by a bus, you sort of just feel so lethargic...”

 

RICK:
We also saw a social event, a birthday party in West Hoxton on the other side of town to the Bondi cluster, where now nearly 30 people have actually tested positive.  

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“...that since the pandemic has started this is perhaps the scariest period that NSW is going through…”

 

RICK:
And it wasn't long after that that we started to see more outbreaks popping up across the country. The Sydney cluster had spread interstate. 

 

RUBY:
OK, so tell me about that. What do we know about where else cases linked to this Sydney outbreak have occurred? 

 

RICK:
So what we do know is that the Sydney outbreak spread to Western Australia. A woman in her 50s who is actually believed to have caught the virus in Sydney returned home to Perth. She actually tested negative when she arrived. So she went out into the community for a few days before testing positive a few days later. Now, there have been a couple of cases of community transmission in the area since then. 

 

And there was concern that something similar may have happened in Melbourne with cases from Sydney arriving into the city. But so far, that seems to have been contained quickly without a new outbreak. But then we've got the Northern Territory and Queensland outbreaks. 

 

RUBY:
What’s happening in the NT and Queensland?

 

RICK:
The Northern Territory outbreak was triggered by a gold mine worker in Central Australia who seems to have picked up the virus in a hotel in Brisbane. So this is another hotel quarantine leak. The miner has worked alongside 900 FIFO workers who have now left the mine in recent days and they've been told to isolate. Now, that's obviously led to concerns that we could see more spread into different cities and towns across the country. And of course, in Queensland now, we've got...we've had a few days now where they've recorded about three cases 

 

RUBY:
OK, so, Rick, after a relatively transmission free beginning to 2021 with few cases around the country, except for in Melbourne, we've now got this growing outbreak in Sydney, which has spread to WA. We've got separate outbreaks in Queensland and the Northern Territory. It is starting to feel a lot like the beginning of the pandemic, Rick. It's feeling a lot like March last year when it first hit. 

 

RICK:
Well, I don't think there has been a moment since March last year where the whole nation has been on kind of this alert footing. You know, back then, we went into our first national lockdown and it's starting to look very similar. We've got lockdowns in WA...

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“Effective from midnight tonight, Perth and Peel will enter a full lockdown.”

 

RICK:
...the Northern Territory...

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“...for the first time we do have public exposure sites in the Northern Territory.” 

 

RICK:
...and part of Queensland including Brisbane, that's eleven local government areas.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“Southeast Queensland, Townsville City, Palm Island and Magnetic Island will go into lockdown…”

 

RICK:
We've got lockdowns, obviously, in Sydney where I am based at the moment...

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“What does that mean? That means all of us have to stay at home. We trust our people to do the right thing.”

 

RICK:
The ACT has brought in mandatory masks for inside. South Australia shut its borders to pretty much everyone in the country right now. Tasmania has done similar. So we've got pretty much the entire country now embroiled in Covid-19. In many ways, I think this is the most precarious position that Australia has been in as a whole since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. And so these lockdowns and restrictions, they're being implemented by various state governments, Rick, but this is a national outbreak now. So what is the federal government saying and doing about this? 

 

RICK:
So on Monday evening, the prime minister led an emergency national cabinet meeting. He spoke afterwards on a virtual press conference...

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Good. Thank you very much. I'm joined by Professor Paul Kelly and Lieutenant General Frewen…”

 

RICK:
And he seemed, well, he seemed remarkably under pressure, actually.  

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“The Delta variant, Delta variant, is proving to be a far more difficult element of this virus than we have seen to date. This is not just the case in Australia. It was certainly my experience when I was overseas. And the Delta variant is presenting very different challenges from those that we have faced in the past.”  

 

RICK:

And he made some pretty significant announcements about whether things, where things were at, and announced some drastic changes to the vaccine rollout. 

 

RUBY:
We'll be back after this. 

 

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RUBY:
Rick, can you tell me a bit more about what Scott Morrison actually announced at this press conference on Monday night? 

 

RICK:
It was quite a remarkable list because it seemed on the face of it, like things that we should probably have already been doing. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced that vaccinations will be mandatory for all residential aged care workers across the country and that they must have at least one dose of a Covid vaccine by mid-September.

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“We have agreed to mandate vaccination to have at least one dose by September, mid-September 2021, of all residential aged care work force against Covid-19...” 

 

RICK:
Bear in mind that these workers were included in phase 1A of this vaccine rollout, which means they should have been finished in March and April. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“The Commonwealth will work together with the states to ensure compliance with those orders because we have those direct relationships and reporting relationships with the aged care providers.” 

 

RICK:
He also announced that anyone under 40 who is not yet eligible for a Pfizer vaccine is now able to go to their GP and receive the AstraZeneca vaccine if their doctor gives medical approval and if they basically waive any concerns they have about potential complications. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“If you wish to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, then we would encourage you to go and have that discussion with your GP...” 

 

RICK:
So this stuff will be looked at again by August. There will be an update from experts about how this policy is working, because as the Prime minister said, they don't want any unintended consequences. 

 

RUBY:
And so with more eligibility for the vaccine, Rick, the obvious question is, where are we at with supply? Is there enough available? 

 

RICK:
No, not yet. I mean, there will be and this is kind of - so, last week or the week before, we finally got a hold of what the government was calling the vaccine supply arrangement horizons. We're not calling them targets because targets are too concrete. Horizons, by definition, of course, are never met. And so essentially by October, this document said that AstraZeneca will no longer be part of the routine vaccine supply in this country. And that's partly because by then, we will have enough supply of Pfizer and Moderna to be vaccinating, you know, lots of people. Now, Moderna is going to be available in small quantities from around September, about, you know, 80,000 doses a week would be delivered to GPs, state clinics, you know, the whole nation basically. But Pfizer by that point in September will have overtaken AstraZeneca as the most popular vaccine on offer, with about up to 1.3 million doses delivered per week. But right now, less than 5 percent of the Australian population has actually received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, like, right at the bottom of the chart of OECD countries. In the UK and the US, nearly 50 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. That's both doses. Whereas here the vaccination rollout is extremely slow going. 

 

RUBY:
It does seem like we are very underprepared at this stage of the pandemic, particularly when you look at those figures that you mentioned about Australia's vaccination rates being the lowest in the OECD. And it seems obvious that there really... we only have one option when outbreaks like this happen and that is locking down. 

 

RICK:
Well, I mean, lockdown as we say is always a last resort, or at least it should be. It should have been clear in our assessments of what the future would look like back, you know, last year that we're not out of this thing until we're fully vaccinated. And of course, now, you know, we've got the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, basically pointing to case numbers in the UK as an example of why vaccines aren't the solution to this, because he essentially said that they're getting rising case numbers even though half of them are vaccinated. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“And even as the UK is finding with a 80 percent vaccinated population, they're not there either because they've got more than 20 people, over 100 people dying every week. And so that's not a situation that I'm prepared to countenance...”

 

RICK:
But he completely ignores the emerging evidence, which, in fact, Gladys Berejiklian referred to this week, which is that the vaccines reduce the amount of serious hospitalisations and deaths because of Covid-19. Watching that press conference was quite bizarre because the Prime Minister was angry. He was lashing out. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“...We don’t have a choice! The pandemic is still upon us, it’s the pandemic, that's the reason why these things are still happening!”

 

RICK:
He was cranky at being questioned and it was that kind of the typical demeanour of someone who has a stuffed up, knows they've stuffed up, and is then being called on it and doesn't want to deal with it.

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Well, if they wish to go and speak to their, their doctor and have access to the AstraZeneca vaccine, they can do so.”

 

RICK:
Because this, this is 18 months into this pandemic. And it's kind of just hard to avoid the sense that this is all just spin, right, designed to make Australians feel OK about the slow rate of the vaccine rollout. And I think that might have been working for them up to maybe two months ago. But the longer this drags on, the bigger the problem is and the more we start to see, as in the Australian public start to see the rest of the world open up and international travel resume while we're stuck here because of some kind of absolute breathtaking incompetence and the reliance on inertia, basically. We had to change, we had to do stuff and we didn't do it. 

 

RUBY:
Rick, thank you so much for your time. 

 

RICK:
Thank you. I appreciate it. 

 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today...

 

NSW recorded another 19 locally acquired Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, as the list of exposure sites grew to more than 250 across Greater Sydney. Two new cases of Covid-19 have been recorded in Darwin - bringing the total number of Covid-19 cases from the Central Australian mine outbreak to nine.

 

The NT Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, has warned that they’re expecting more positive cases throughout the week. 

 

Meanwhile, WA has reintroduced a hard border with Queensland, while the NT has closed off its borders to the Perth and Peel regions in WA and to all areas of Queensland now in lockdown. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

 

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