NSW gold-standard failure makes our way out of Covid even harder

Victoria entered its fifth lockdown of the pandemic, and will remain until 11.59pm on Tuesday. Picture: Getty Images
Victoria entered its fifth lockdown of the pandemic, and will remain until 11.59pm on Tuesday. Picture: Getty Images

With this week's second extension of the Greater Sydney lockdown, it is clear that the much-vaunted NSW strategy of managing Covid in the community through contact tracing and isolation looks to be dead.

Many factors may have contributed to this latest outbreak fracturing the system.

It seems likely that the Delta variant is genuinely much more contagious than previous variants. One difficulty in acknowledging this conclusion is that state governments have made similar claims about every variant that has been found - mostly to justify their "lockdown first" approach.

A number of super-spreader events also happened early in the outbreak, and those events happened at the worst possible places (eg. a shopping centre). The outbreak also occurred at the worst possible time, on the run into winter.

Maybe NSW really was just lucky in previous outbreaks, as some claimed.

However, some charges are clearly not supported by the evidence. There is no evidence to suggest that more punitive lockdown restrictions - for example, a curfew - would do much at all.

Nor is it fair to suggest, without the benefit of hindsight, NSW should have locked down far earlier. NSW announced a localised lockdown on June 25, and a general lockdown on the 26th. There were just 12 new cases on the 25th, and only three days before that the number of new cases was just four.

You can bet they will be faster next time, of course.

Notwithstanding the causes or debated fairness of this outbreak, the reality is NSW is in lockdown for some time, Victoria is holding its breath and crossing its fingers that its lockdown will be shorter than last time, and several other states have just emerged from their latest lockdown.

The NSW failure might be a source of glee for the demented twitter troll cadre, and egg on the face of those of us who advocated it as the "gold standard", but there are larger and graver concerns for the country.

Earlier in the pandemic, there was a lot of focus on the economic cost of lockdowns. Many - particularly those with secure jobs that easily adapted to working from home and those without young kids - simply assumed that government could effectively cover this cost indefinitely.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian fronts the media on Friday. Picture: Getty Images

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian fronts the media on Friday. Picture: Getty Images

They pushed for a "lockdown first" approach that is the bedrock of the Covid elimination strategy and strongly opposed the way NSW managed small outbreaks.

Yet at the very moment this strategy has seemingly triumphed as the new "gold standard", its appeal is rapidly becoming overwhelmed by the social costs of lockdowns and the increasing prevalence of lockdown fatigue.

Regardless of whether government can afford to do this forever, it is now clear that people cannot cope with yo-yo lockdowns for that much longer. Certainly not for years.

This leaves us without good options. No appetite exists in the community to tolerate Covid spreading, each lockdown becomes that much harder to endure, and not only is the vaccine rollout nowhere near fast enough, it is not even likely to solve the problem.

Vaccines have given us the tools to live with Covid, not eliminate it. They will reduce fatalities to within normal limits, but many will still get Covid, and some will die - as they do from influenza and other communicable diseases.

Current policy deems that outcome unacceptable and, as long as the pro-lockdown crowd can outsource their terror of Covid to everyone, it's hard to see a way out.

After all, some estimates suggest herd immunity may require as much as 85 per cent of the population to be vaccinated. With our current rollout this could take years - if it is ever achieved - and meanwhile the virus will continue to mutate, undermining this effort.

Moreover, the government cannot passively wait for a certain percentage of people to be vaccinated in the hope this will allay community fears. Such a strategy would allow the vaccine sceptics and nervous lockdowners to hold the rest of society hostage indefinitely.

The economic and social cost of this is simply too high.

The NSW approach, together with rising vaccination rates, offered a way to transition out of the dead-end of repeated lockdowns. The failure of the NSW approach in the face of the Delta outbreak makes such a transition even harder.


Genuine leadership is needed here. The Australian government must do two things. First, instead of focusing on hitting a certain percentage of people who have received a vaccine, we must quickly ensure that 100 per cent of people have the opportunity to get vaccinated.

The vaccine rollout has been an omnishambles and must be fixed. It would be a good start if state government officials stopped stoking fears over extremely low frequency side-effects. It would also be good to acknowledge there is a need for urgency, and operate that way.

Fix the official messaging. Be unequivocal. Tell people to get vaccinated.

It will likely still take months to achieve this, but it must be done.

Once a reasonable date for achieving this goal has been set, federal and state governments should soon after that agree a hard, unmovable date on when policies such as closing state borders or locking down entire populations (as opposed to at-risk centres like aged care facilities) are permanently taken off the table.

Once people have been given the option to get vaccinated, anyone who chooses not to do so must take personal responsibility for their own health and risks. No more calling the police on those "not taking it seriously enough". No more banning people from crossing the border.

No more telling people they can't see their loved ones get married, or farewell those who are dying. Ever.

For a number of months Australia has been operating in a parallel reality where we have assumed we can put Covid in a box and keep it there forever.

Our early success in eliminating Covid has made us believe that the extraordinary measures taken at the height of the pandemic could simply be wheeled out whenever needed, until some unspecified time in the future when it would be "safe".

Recent events have shown just how unfounded those assumptions really are. The pandemic won't be over until we end it.

  • Simon Cowan is research director at the Centre for Independent Studies and a regular columnist.
This story NSW gold-standard failure makes our way out of Covid even harder first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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