Let it rip?
Did the NSW health minister imply NSW might just give up on suppression?
The NSW government has extended its two-week lockdown by another week, announcing 27 new COVID-19 cases today, and warning of a major spike in the coming days amid “concerning statistics” in three Sydney local government areas. Premier Gladys Berejiklian revealed that there are now 37 people in hospital and seven in ICU, with several of those under 35. Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said that this should be a “wake-up call” to young people, and dispel the myth that the virus only affects the elderly. Officials continued to beg for Sydneysiders to take the lockdown seriously, suggesting it was being extended because people hadn’t been doing the right thing, and batting away suggestions that the extension was made necessary by the lockdown being called too late. Whether or not that’s true, it’s not entirely clear if another week will be enough, with the state now facing a difficult battle to bring the outbreak under control. And when Health Minister Brad Hazzard was asked whether, if the Delta variant proved too hard to contain, the state should “just give up” on the suppression strategy, he suggested that yes, they might have to, while acknowledging it was trying “damned hard” to suppress it at the moment. “If the individuals that we need don’t hear Dr Chant’s message and don’t respond, then at some point we’re going to move to a stage where we’re going to have to accept that the virus has a life which will continue in the community,” said Hazzard. With a concerning 10 per cent of known cases currently in hospital, is Hazzard really suggesting the state might give up on suppression before the nation reaches that unknown magic vaccination rate, simply because lockdown is too hard? Would the state government that has been the most reluctant to lock down be willing to waste the efforts it has made over the past two weeks by ultimately letting the virus rip?
It’s not clear whether the health minister’s views on “learning to live with the virus” reflect those of his colleagues (though he’s backed by NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, who reportedly vehemently opposed the lockdown extension). But Hazzard’s statements can be understood as a terrifying admission that NSW really did lock down too late, revealing a belief that containing an outbreak of the more-infectious Delta variant may not even be possible at this point. Hazzard’s comments appear to be aimed at scaring people into listening to the health advice, although if he’s trying to reach people who aren’t taking the lockdown seriously, it’s questionable whether the message of “we might have to stop trying” will have much effect on them.
But the thought that NSW might abandon the nation’s united suppression approach is a deeply concerning one, both for the state and the rest of the nation. While Hazzard surely doesn’t mean giving up on managing the virus entirely, with contact-tracing and some restrictions to remain for the rest of the lengthy rollout process, deciding to allow the Delta variant to circulate in the NSW community would likely see thousands more hospitalisations and hundreds more deaths, not to mention the state being cut off from the rest of the country for however long it takes to vaccinate the population. It hardly needs saying at this point in the pandemic, but it would also mean an ongoing reduction in freedom (the limiting of elective surgeries and visitors to hospitals, for instance), and it’s a scenario unlikely to foster confidence in the economy. Remember those countries that went for an anti-lockdown approach back in March 2020 “for the sake of the economy”, and how they were all proven wrong?
Admittedly, we are in a very different situation to the one we were in last year, with vaccines having begun their incredibly slow rollout across the country. But with only 7.9 per cent of Australians fully vaccinated (and 17.6 per cent having only received one dose), Australia is not that much further along than it was at this time in 2020, and we’re not getting anywhere quickly. While some of our most vulnerable are now thankfully protected (but even in those circumstances, the vaccine rollout has been patchy), the call to abandon lockdowns could present a very real danger to the many Australians who have not yet had the chance to receive a vaccine, with most of those under 40 still without access to the recommended Pfizer (unless they are Sydney private school boys – a “mistake” that Hazzard today insisted we “move on” from).
The latest suggestions from the NSW government may have been inspired by those of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is this week preparing to lift almost all restrictions in England – even as a large number of citizens remains unvaccinated – and warning that “we must reconcile ourselves … to more deaths”. The decision has alarmed scientists in the UK and around the world, with the policy of “letting it rip” through a partially vaccinated community being a recipe for more contagious variants (or the disturbingly described “variant factories”). Australia’s population is much less vaccinated, and it’s also still possible to fully stamp out Delta here while we get the vaccinating done. We know it’s possible because several other Australian states have so far done it.
So why won’t New South Wales? Greater Sydney has so far spent less than two weeks in a lockdown that has been seen as less stringent than those in other states, and its leaders are already contemplating giving up, unwilling to face the extra days (or weeks) that are likely necessary. Part of the point of the national suppression approach, which premiers collectively fought for against the wishes of the federal government, was that everyone took part, which many have done at great emotional and financial cost. This is not a state-versus-state thing – everyone wants NSW to succeed here (except, apparently, NSW). We are all in this together, and if one state fails we could all end up paying the price.
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The NSW government has extended its two-week lockdown by another week, announcing 27 new COVID-19 cases today, and warning of a major spike in the coming days amid “concerning statistics” in three Sydney local government areas. Premier Gladys Berejiklian revealed that there are now 37 people in hospital and seven in ICU, with several of those under 35. Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said that this should be a “wake-up call” to young people, and dispel the myth that the virus only affects the elderly. Officials continued to beg for Sydneysiders to take the lockdown seriously, suggesting it was being extended because people hadn’t been doing the right thing, and batting away suggestions that the extension was made...
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