Locked down with Covid cases rising, Sydney wonders how Delta outbreak will end

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

After five weeks of a tightening lockdown, they were not the words Sydney residents wanted to hear: the leader of New South Wales announcing another month of restrictions and telling the state to prepare for things to get worse, not better.

There was further anguish prompted by the daily Covid case numbers, which were rising daily, despite strict stay at home measures.

As Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales, told Sydney its lockdown would continue until the end of August, many residents of Australia’s largest city wondered if life would return to normal before Christmas.

Related: Troops enforcing western Sydney lockdown will alienate community, advocates warn

“We know we’ve put in the hard yards for five weeks and we don’t want to waste all the good work that we’ve done by opening too early and then having the virus spread again,” said Berejiklian.

The complex, changing rules have added to a sense of confusion and exhaustion across the city. The Delta variant is proving enduringly difficult for Australia to suppress with restrictions, and now the path out of Covid restrictions seems to lie with vaccines.

“I don’t think anyone can deny that the vaccination rate is absolutely key to how we live life in NSW” Berejiklian said on Tuesday.

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian at a press conference to provide a Covid-19 update in Sydney on Thursday.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian at a press conference to provide a Covid-19 update in Sydney on Thursday. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Unfortunately, the vaccination rate in Australia is the second slowest in the OECD. Due to a series of mis-steps by the government, Australia has stockpiles of AstraZeneca that many citizens are reluctant to take, and not enough Pfizer to go around.

On Wednesday, economists at ANZ bank predicted that the lockdown would continue “at least until September”, Business Insider reported. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, aimed lower, saying he hoped that enough people would be vaccinated by Christmas that “we would be seeing a very different Australia to what we are seeing now”.

“Lockdowns become a thing of the past when you are at that level,” he predicted.

But in the meantime, thousands of police officers and hundreds of troops have been deployed across greater Sydney to enforce tighter restrictions.

Currently, the rules include leaving home only to buy food or essential goods; exercise; essential work and medical care, as well as wearing masks indoors. People are not allowed to travel further than 10km from their homes.

Related: Australia Covid: Sydney records worst day yet for cases as police get tough

For 2 million Sydneysiders in eight “local government areas of concern” in the city’s west, there is a 5km travel limit and masks are required outdoors – additional restrictions brought in this week.

Yet over the course of a month, restrictions have not worked to bring down case numbers. Expert opinion is split on whether adopting rules used during Melbourne’s long lockdown in 2020, including a city-wide outdoor face masks mandate and curfews, would work to limit the spread in Sydney, or whether its geography, demographics and the infectiousness of the Delta variant would blunt the benefit of some measures.

On Friday, with a slightly lower case total, Berejiklian warned infections would continue to “bounce around” and again encouraged people to get vaccinated.

“It’s really important for us to get as many jabs in arms as possible because more jabs in arms means more freedom for all of us in the quicker we get vaccinated, the quicker we can live more freely,” she said.

Just under 18% of Australians have had two doses of a Covid vaccine. The country of 25 million is vaccinating only 200,000 people a day.

The Grattan Institute, a Sydney thinktank, said this week that Australia could not abandon its strategy of bringing cases down to zero until 80% of the population was vaccinated – something it said was possible by the end of the year only if vaccine supply issues were resolved by October.

Related: Will Sydney’s Covid lockdown work and how different are restrictions to Melbourne’s ‘ring of steel’?

Questions remain as to what the government is doing to increase the number of vaccinations. A coalition of nursing organisations said on Friday that were nurse practitioners enlisted in the rollout, all Australians could have a first dose of the vaccine within just under nine weeks, and a second dose in just under 11 weeks depending on the varying interval periods for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. The group urged the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, to include nurses in the vaccine rollout.

“We have the nurses, we have the expertise. Include us in your rollout Minister Hunt and we will provide your solution,” they said in a statement.

While the rollout remains slow and the lockdown in place, employment in the state “could fall by 300,000 in a couple of months”, a Commonwealth Bank economist told the ABC.

On Thursday, the federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg warned that the country could fall back into recession, months after recovering from its first recession in nearly 30 years.

“My expectation is that the September quarter will be negative,” said Frydenberg. “But with respect to the December quarter, that does depend to a large extent how successful NSW, our largest state economy, is in getting on top of this virus.”

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