As the Delta variant outruns NSW’s contact tracing, the cabinet splits between Covid and the economy

For the 新南威尔士 政府, the acid test of its keep-it-open approach during the pandemic is upon them.

后 10 days of lockdown, the highly contagious Delta variant has moved from the eastern suburbs, a predominantly English-speaking, middle class part of the city, to Sydney’s south-west, its most ethnically diverse. Big multigenerational households are common, household incomes and savings are smaller and many are employed in face-to-face work.

The NSW government’s strategy of avoiding early lockdowns and trying to keep the economy ticking over while tracing cases is looking decidedly shaky.

On Thursday the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced there were 38 cases – a record in this outbreak – of which only 18 had been in isolation. Of the other 20, 11 had been out in the community, and nine had been in partial isolation, which apparently means the person was identified as a close contact of an infected person but had been out in the community for some of their own infectious period. That’s bad.

The problem for the NSW government is that it has sent very mixed messages about what it’s trying to achieve with the lockdown – and even more confusing messages on Thursday about how NSW is going to get out of it.

This in part reflects the tensions within the cabinet.

The NSW treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, argued forcefully in Tuesday’s cabinet meeting for the lockdown not to be extended for another week to 16 七月. On Thursday he told 2GB that that was his job: “to advocate for business” during the pandemic.

That may be understandable, given his portfolio, but as a member of cabinet his perspective should be broader and he should be evaluating the short-term pain of an early lockdown against the long-term pain of a long one.

Less understandable was the health minister, Brad Hazzard, suggesting on Wednesday that NSW might just have to learn to live with the virus circulating in the community. After that alarming suggestion, he was noticeably quiet at Thursday’s press conference. In one of his few responses he said: “I agree with the premier.”

And then there are the mixed messages to shoppers and employees.

Unlike Victoria, a much wider range of retail stores remain open in NSW: department stores, Harvey Norman, JB Hifi, Flower Power remain open. You can even buy a designer handbag at Louis Vuitton in Westfield Bondi Junction – the site of the original outbreak – provided you make an appointment.

Yet, 星期四, Berejiklian and her health minister were imploring Sydneysiders, to stay home. Please don’t browse when shopping for food essentials. Get in and out as fast as possible.

“Write a list before you go,” advised Chant. “Try to limit your exposure.”

“Only go out for urgent medical care. Have an appointment before you go or call an ambulance,” advised the premier.

Until now NSW has prided itself on its lighter touch strategy, managing intermittent outbreaks with its tracing system (described as gold standard), mask mandates, limits on big indoor venues and one geographically specific lockdown last Christmas on the Northern beaches.

But while this worked with earlier outbreaks, it’s not working now.

As both Berejiklian and Chant stressed on Thursday the Delta variant is different.

关于 23 days after the first case was identified, it was revealed in Thursday’s official numbers that there are now 29 cases that have not been directly linked to a known case or cluster, with a further 87 who are linked to these 29 unlinked cases.

In her press conference Chant admitted that “the containment strategy hadn’t worked” and that cases were “popping up everywhere” not just in the suburbs she had highlighted in her briefing.

Berejiklian’s message had become more strident and decisive: Stay home, don’t visit family. Don’t even go and see older relatives unless its absolutely essential to deliver care. Don’t take the kids to see grandma. Define family narrowly.

But business is still being encouraged to stay open, which means NSW workers will feel obliged to get on public transport and turn up, particularly without the safety net of jobkeeper. On Thursday afternoon Scott Morrison announced the federal government would waive the asset test for NSW workers to access emergency support, which previously ruled out people who had $10,000 in the bank.

Perrottet and others in cabinet may wish to keep the NSW economy ticking over and people in jobs, but getting the lockdown wrong will prove even more costly. It might even be too late now.

The next question for NSW is what is the measure to get out of lockdown.

Rather than case numbers a day, the premier instead referred to desired vaccination rates.

“I know it is really hard but our strategy is that we want this to be the one and only lockdown between now and when most of our population is vaccinated, and on that point, I want to stress that some weeks ago I said our aim was to have 10m jabs,” Berejiklian said.

“That’s about 80% of the adult population but only 62% of the New South Wales population,“ 她说.

Even this figure is controversial within the NSW cabinet, with several media organisations being briefed that this was not a cabinet-endorsed figure.

Vaccination rates of this magnitude are months away. So far Australia has just 9.8% fully vaccinated.

“There isn’t anywhere on the planet that has managed to live with this variant, the Delta virus without having a proportion of the population vaccinated,“ 她说.

The sad truth for NSW is unless there is a dramatic turnaround in daily case numbers and a high degree of confidence that the contact tracers are on top of all chains of transmission, it’s unlikely the lockdown can be lifted.

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