Beaches closed as Sydney Covid cluster grows to 28 cases and premier berates public over masks

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

Sydney’s northern beaches coronavirus cluster has grown to 28 cases, including one person who travelled to Queensland before testing positive, with authorities closing more than 20 beaches from Manly to Palm Beach as they battle to contain the spread of the virus.

The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, urged the whole of Sydney to “be on high alert”, and said it would be “crazy” to catch public transport, go grocery shopping or attend a place of worship without a mask.

Genome sequencing has revealed the outbreak was an international strain with an American origin, that could be linked to a woman who returned to Australia on 1 December and is still in hotel quarantine.

On Friday morning, Berejiklian said a further 10 people had tested positive on the northern beaches since 8pm on Thursday, and one person in Queensland who was linked to the cluster.

The premier said “a couple of people” from other parts of Sydney had attended two northern beaches venues that had been the main spreading events of the outbreak, meaning that it could spread across the city.

Related: Australia border restrictions: here are the new state and territory Covid rules for NSW travellers

“They went back to their homes in other suburbs,” she said. “There is potential seeding outside Avalon and the northern beaches.”

Later on Friday, authorities announced that 21 beaches in the city’s north would be closed.

Northern Beaches Council and Surf Life Saving NSW lowered the red and yellow flags from Manly to Palm Beach stating there would only be emergency “surveillance capability” in place until Monday.

“We are backing the government’s call for residents of the northern beaches to stay at home for the next few days,” the Surf Life Saving NSW chief executive, Steven Pearce, said.

The state’s chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said the northern beaches outbreak was an international strain with an American origin.

She said early results showed it was “similar” to that found in a returned traveller who entered hotel quarantine on 1 December and was still receiving treatment.

Chant said the woman was “clearly infectious while on the plane”.

The health minister, Brad Hazzard, said the woman tested positive while in hotel quarantine and was transferred to a health hotel, where she remained. He said it was not certain that she was the initial source of the infection.

“The work is continuing to establish what that person’s connection would have been,” he said. “There may have been intermediates.”

Chant said the uncertainty over the source of the cluster was troubling.

“My anxiety is we haven’t found the direct transmission route, and we cannot be sure we have blocked the transmission line,” she said.

Although health authorities indicated new case numbers would only be reported daily, by Friday evening news of the outbreak’s spread from the northern beaches began to emerge.

One new case was confirmed on the state’s Central Coast after a woman who caught a ferry from Palm Beach to Wagstaffe on Wednesday tested positive. The woman is now isolating at home with her only close contact, authorities said.

NSW Health also released an updated list of potential exposure venues including a number outside of the northern beaches. Among those was the Westfield shopping centre at Bondi Junction, the Cronulla RSL and Sienna Marina, a restaurant in Woolloomooloo.

Hazzard and Berejiklian both implied Sydneysiders had let down their guard during the weeks with no community transmission, although no one linked to the outbreak has been shown to have breached any guidelines.

Hazzard said he had seen a “creeping complacency” among Sydney residents, and an “avalanche” of complacency.

Berejiklian told reporters: “Everybody in Sydney needs to be on high alert … Nobody should be getting on public transport without a mask, nobody should be going to a grocery store or place of worship without a mask. It would just be crazy if people were undertaking those activities without a mask.”

Neither Berejiklian, Hazzard nor Chant wore a mask at the press conference, although advisers did.

Hazzard, who lives on the northern beaches, said he had a Covid test on Thursday and had self-isolated while waiting for the result, which was negative. He is exempt from the request for residents to stay at home as an “essential worker”.

The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said that the woman who tested positive in Queensland had since returned to NSW.

The state’s chief health officer, Jeannette Young, said the woman in her 50s flew in to Brisbane airport on a Virgin flight on 16 December and wore a mask on the flight. She said she was “most concerned” about a lunch the woman had at the Glen Hotel at Eight Mile Plains.

She also travelled to the Sunshine Coast, but Young said that apart from a hotel receptionist, she “otherwise didn’t have any broad contact there”.

“We are confident that we will find anyone who has come into contact with that individual,” she said.

Queensland announced that anyone who arrived in the state from Saturday after being in the northern beaches local government area since 11 December must go into hotel quarantine for 14 days. People already in Queensland who had been in the northern beaches since 11 December must go into self-isolation at home or in their accommodation.

Police said they would start randomly stopping cars and would meet all flights coming into Queensland, to check whether people had come from the northern beaches.

Related: Covid hotspots NSW: list of Sydney and regional coronavirus case locations

One plane coming into north Queensland on Friday had 12 people who had been to the northern beaches, police said.

Victoria and Western Australia also said arrivals from the northern beaches would have to go into hotel quarantine, and advised all their residents to avoid travel to any part of New South Wales.

In NSW, Berejiklian also announced that the state would change its guidelines for how international aircrew quarantine in Sydney. Victoria quickly followed suit.

From Tuesday, all aircrew will quarantine in only two designated hotels, “as opposed to 25 or 26”, Berejiklian said.

She said airline crew had breached the guidelines previously.

“There was one airline crew from a few weeks ago that breached their isolation and went to venues,” she said.

“The issue isn’t the guidelines that we have in place, it’s unfortunately a few occasions where people have breached the guidelines, or actually chose not to self-isolate when they should have.

“From Tuesday, there will be no chance of disobedience.”

NSW police later reported that 13 aircrew had been fined for breaching quarantine requirements after arriving on a flight from South America on 5 December.

Chant clarified that there had been no further cases associated with a van driver who worked at Sydney airport, and who transported aircrew to and from their hotel quarantine.

The man from south-west Sydney tested positive on Wednesday, becoming the first locally acquired case in the state since 3 December.

Chant said the man’s close contacts had tested negative and were still in self-isolation. She said genomic sequencing showed that his strain was also “most likely a US strain”, which was “consistent with the hypothesis” that he caught the virus from international flight crew.

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