The New South Wales government has got it wrong when it comes to not locking down Sydney due to the Bondi cluster, according to health experts.
- Australia’s vaccine rollout again came under fire
- Questions were raised about why NSW locked down the Northern Beaches last year but not the current cluster
- Fears were raised by health experts that NSW is not on top of the current outbreak
Q+A panellists Mary-Louise McLaws and Bill Bowtell criticised the decision of NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant and Premier Gladys Berejiklian not to send Sydney, or at least parts of it, into a snap lockdown to contain the latest outbreak.
The NSW government resisted a lockdown on Thursday despite case numbers from the outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant rising to 36, with Dr Chant saying a three-day lockdown would not be of benefit to Sydney.
Asked by Q+A host Hamish Macdonald if NSW had got it wrong, Professor McLaws, an epidemiologist who is also an adviser to the World Health Organization, was confident that was the case.
“I think NSW is loath to use lockdowns,” she said.
“Mostly every other state does.
Asked if she thought NSW had the current outbreak under control, Professor McLaws was to the point.
“Well, no,” she answered.
“We’ve had several cases that are potentially causing more harm down in Melbourne.
“We have the hairdresser that has been a mystery link as they call it, then we’ve had the woman that went to New Zealand, so we’re going to see more cases.
“They may not be enormous in number but that’s beside the point, this is a variant of concern that has a reputation for causing more hospitalisation and of course more (transmission from) children because of the large numbers of people they can infect.”
Her comments were backed up by Dr Bowtell, who led Australia’s response to the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“The Premier is right to say this is a very scary moment, but you can’t have it both ways,” Dr Bowtell said.
“We only have one weapon in our armoury unfortunately now that works, and that’s, as Mary-Louise McLaws said, a short sharp lockdown.”
‘In effect, it’s about 90 per cent more infectious’
Given that NSW locked down the Northern Beaches region of Sydney over Christmas last year when there were a similar number of cases in the cluster, the panel was asked why the NSW government may have opted for a different response this time.
Professor McLaws said it was likely that last year’s decision was taken due to the high number of initial cases.
“The Northern Beaches outbreak, I think they went into lockdown fast because of the large numbers at the beginning,” Professor McLaws said.
“And so they were very concerned it would be out of control and quite rightly they went into lockdown, it was sensible.
“With this one, because it went slowly and because they probably missed the boat in stopping people from wandering on the weekend, going to New Zealand, going to Melbourne, going to a party, they probably feel they don’t want to now or they feel they’ve got it under control.
“But I’m concerned that that’s not necessarily the case.”
Professor McLaws then added that what NSW had done in the past by locking down small areas may not necessarily stop the spread this time due to the high level of the contagion of the Delta variant.
“The Alpha strain was 33 per cent more infectious than the Wuhan strain, this one is double that,” she said.
With fears that the latest Sydney outbreak could continue to rise in size, both Dr Bowtell and Professor McLaws called for changes to hotel quarantine.
Professor McLaws said the system was “letting [Australia] down”.
“We’ve had 21,000 cases since we developed this mandatory quarantine system because of the 27 breaches that we’ve had,” she said.
“We need to shore that up and roll out the vaccine as soon as possible, but not to those that are anyone under 60 to 40, but to the group that are going to be more at risk of acquiring it and spreading it, and that’s the 20 to 39-year-olds. They have to be our priority.”
That view had been dismissed earlier in the day by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
But Professor McLaws said a change in the focus of the vaccine rollout was vital.
“You go where you get most juice for your squeeze and that is the 40 per cent of cases in the 20-39-year-old group,” she said.
“They don’t have the same risk of death as those 70 and over but if the young ones don’t get it, they can’t spread it, so we really need to protect the young right now.”
Claims of misinformation about vaccine rollout
While the comments from the health experts did not draw much of a political response, Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh and NSW Liberal senator Hollie Hughes got into a slanging match later in the show over Australia’s poor vaccination rate.
Mr Leigh held up the United States as an example of how to vaccinate a population, which led to an exasperated response from Senator Hughes as the two spoke over the top of each other.
When asked if the federal government was failing with the vaccine rollout Ms Hughes said “no” and took the opportunity to defend both the federal and NSW governments before saying misinformation about the rollout was rife.
“By today, we should have actually hit 7 million people, but there is an awful lot of misinformation being given,” Senator Hughes said.
“We hear things about 3 per cent of the population, that’s just rubbish, because acknowledging what Mary-Louise McLaws said earlier, we’re not doing under 16s and we’re only doing 50 to 70s in some states.”
Asked by Macdonald if the government was partly responsible for some of that confusion by not releasing figures and revealing what part of the population had received both doses, Senator Hughes said the information was not available.
“We don’t have mandatory reporting and don’t have people’s health records out and available,” Senator Hughes said.
It was a comment Dr Bowtell firmly shut down.
“There’s an Australian register that has all the details of the vaccinations that you seek,” he said.
“It’s there, facts and figures [and] it’s accumulated by the Australian government.
Watch the full episode on iview or via the Q+A Facebook page.