The New South Wales government has lifted restrictions on many construction sites outside of Covid hotspots to allow the industry to resume, as the state recorded its highest number of coronavirus cases in the latest Delta variant outbreak and announced a month-long extension to the greater Sydney lockdown.
Out of a total of 94,532 tests, NSW recorded 177 new locally acquired cases of Covid on Wednesday. Of those, 68 people were in the community during their infectious period and the isolation status of 62 cases remains under investigation.
Almost two million people from eight local government areas in west and south-west Sydney at the epicentre of the latest outbreak have been placed under stricter rules than the rest of the city. They can only leave for essential work, such as aged care, healthcare and working in supermarkets.
Despite Victoria eventually giving up on postcode-related restrictions during its long lockdown because they didn’t work, NSW has proposed eight LGAs remain subject to tighter restrictions: Fairfield, Canterbury Bankstown, Liverpool, Cumberland, Blacktown, Parramatta, Campbelltown and Georges River.
This covers most of the west and south-west of Sydney, and some of its most diverse communities.
The difference for these communities is that tradies cannot go to work, building sites cannot reopen and only those deemed authorised workers can leave their LGA. Some LGAs, such as Fairfield, have additional requirements for these authorised workers to get tested every three days.
In recognition of the prolonged lockdown, the government will follow Victoria’s lead and allow single people living alone to nominate one visitor to their house, provided that person is always the same and does not reside in one of the eight LGAs of concern. For single residents within the eight LGAs, the person they nominate to join their bubble must live within 10km of their home.
NSW also announced a plan for year 12 students to return to schools on 16 August, with plans being formulated to introduce rapid antigen testing for year 12 students in greater Sydney.
Up to 40,000 Pfizer doses will be diverted from other areas in the state, notably from regional NSW, to vaccinate year 12 students in the hotspot LGAs.
But face-to-face learning will not resume for at least four weeks for all other year groups.
In a statement explaining the diverted Pfizer doses, NSW Health said: “GPs continue to supply Pfizer vaccinations in regional NSW, and their supplies from the federal government are unaffected by this reallocation. AstraZeneca remains available from GPs, NSW Health clinics and a growing number of pharmacies.
“NSW Health can assure those in regional NSW who have had a first Pfizer dose they will receive their second dose.”
The government is in discussions with several employers of frontline workers about deploying rapid antigen testing in high exposure workplaces such as supermarkets.
Shopping, like exercise, has also been limited to within the local government area or 10km.
The premier, Gladys Berejiklian, refused to speculate on whether four weeks would be enough to reach her own benchmark for relaxing the lockdown: close to zero cases infectious in the community.
“That is our intention but we have seen how we have struggled to reduce the number of infectious in the community and that is apparent. If we want to live freely while vaccination rates remain rather low, that is the one target we need to stick to,” she said.
“Had we not gone into lockdown, there is absolutely no doubt we would have had thousands and thousands of cases today but also many more deaths. That is something we need to continue to prevent,” she said.
She said it was hoped the expansion of LGAs subject to tighter rules would deliver a “localised, targeted response”, while allowing other parts of Sydney to keep functioning.
At one point Berejiklian said “spring provides a period of hope” and that “compliance will feature strongly in the next few months”.
She also said: “We can’t open up and live freely unless we have the number close to zero or unless we have high rates of vaccination.”
The government will consider whether they can further relax the rules for greater Sydney areas such as the Central Coast, Wollongong and Shellharbour in coming weeks.
Both she and the chief health officer, Kerry Chant, stressed that transmission was still occurring in workplaces, with workers taking the virus back to their families and extended families, causing new chains of transmission.
There is still concern that extended families in Sydney hotspots are visiting each other, despite the rules.
A funeral gathering in Pendle Hill attended by 50 people has led to 48 infections and at least one death, plus spread to other workplaces.
Berejiklian refused to say how the government intended to enforce the differential rules across Sydney other than appealing to everyone to comply. Police commissioner Mick Fuller will provide more details on Thursday on the policing strategy.
Financial support for NSW is being boosted from both the federal and state governments.
The NSW treasurer, Dominic Perrottet announced jobsaver payments will now be available to businesses with an annual turnover of between $75,000 and $250m, up from $50m, which have experienced a revenue decline of 30% or more.
The maximum weekly payment has also been substantially increased, with employing businesses that maintain their employee headcount now able receive between $1,500 and $100,000 per week, up from $10,000, with payments based on 40% of their weekly NSW payroll.
He defended the decision to allow construction to resume, saying it would add $550m a week to the NSW economy.