How NSW lost control of the virus. Yet Scott Morrison said that NSW was the ‘gold standard’ in infection control.

Jan 1, 2021

When Covid was detected in Sydney’s northern beaches area, the peninsula was locked down strongly by the Berejiklian government. While that cluster seems to have been contained, outbreaks elsewhere around Sydney have thrown some curious decisions into the limelight.

From the time that Covid was detected in Avalon, Health Minister Hazzard whose seat is in the area, tried to take a positive approach. He, the premier and the chief medical officer emphasised the great work being done not only by health workers but also by local residents. Testing took place in great numbers and people heeded advice to stay home and venture out only for necessary purposes related to mental and physical health – care, exercise, food shopping and work.

This determination to thank people for their efforts rather than to punish the miscreants might also have led to some curious decisions. For example, mask wearing was recommended but not declared mandatory. Hazzard cited the difficulties for bus drivers forced to supervise mask wearing. Yet at the same time, the government had no qualms about expecting businesses to enforce social distancing, provide sanitation, insist on masks and obtain accurate personal records for tracing purposes from all shoppers and diners.

At the daily press conferences to update the situation in the beaches and further afield, the chief medical officer found it appropriate to wear a mask – but only sometimes. It is possible that mask wearing might have physically prevented the virus spreading further afield. It is also possible that mask wearing gives individuals a greater awareness that they have responsibility to stop the spread.

In another curious decision people were prohibited from visiting the peninsula north of Narrabeen, but were allowed to visit homes in the southern part of the beaches. These visitors then returned to areas outside the beaches.

The softly softly approach was applied to the Boxing Day sales, especially in the Sydney CBD. People were advised not to go. It is puzzling that this instruction stopped at advice. If it was important for people not to go to the CBD, surely this too should have been mandated.

More curious decisions concern the holding of two unnecessary public events: the New Year fireworks around the harbour and the ‘Pink Test’ at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Although the advice about the fireworks has become firmer as the virus spreads there is plenty of wriggle room for people from the peripheral hotspots in the north (Central Coast), west (Blue Mountains) and south (Illawarra) to find viewing points in parks and homes and office blocks around the harbour. As in the case of the cricket test match, the state government seems to prefer that local government authorities and sporting organisations take responsibility for the behaviour of crowds.

It is interesting to compare the leadership shown by Premier Gladys Berejiklan during the bushfires last summer and that she has displayed during the pandemic. Between the two, of course, her reputation suffered somewhat as a result of her involvement with a former MP hauled before the Independent Commission Against Corruption. There is also the federal factor. During the fires, the premier’s leadership compared very favourably with the vacuum at the national level. During the pandemic the prime minister has criticised Premier Andrews of Victoria for the hard lockdowns imposed on the people of that state. At the same time he has praised Berejiklian for her moderate style of control.

Whether such political factors have influenced Berejiklian to adopt her pleading and praising approach is unclear. Another factor could be that she had such confidence in bushfire chief Shane Fitzsimmons. Not only that but she must have appreciated that the public had great confidence in Fitzsimmons as well. So she knew that she could show strong leadership when necessary in that earlier crisis.

This might seem to be an unfair comparison to make with the unelected health officials in the current circumstances. Nevertheless, the term ‘unprecedented’ applied to the bushfires just as well as to the pandemic. It could be that Fitzsimmons is an outstanding individual capable of learning quickly and so there was no issue with endorsing his lead.

Greater Sydney should now be locked down completely. No-one should be allowed in or out except in cases of absolute emergency. Any delay in taking strong action will result in the exponential growth in the number of cases across New South Wales. This will mean that strict lockdowns will have to be mandated anyway and they will be required for much longer periods because of the delay caused by some curious decisions indeed.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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