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Gladys Berejiklian’s message for the past five weeks has been one of partial success. The Premier has repeatedly told us that because Sydney has not seen “thousands and thousands” of cases tear through the city during this lockdown, we have been winning the fight.
Of course, the situation could have been much worse in Sydney. Other international cities can bear testament to that. But that is not the measure. And it brings little comfort to those who are now facing at least another four weeks locked up in Sydney because Delta continues to beat us at our game.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian during Wednesday’s COVID-19 update and press conference.Credit:Getty
Berejiklian’s brand during the past 17 months has been built on keeping NSW free and open, but this latest outbreak has changed that narrative. The “gold standard” pandemic response set by NSW is now under threat. Low-paid workers who have lost shifts, businesses facing the prospect of collapse, parents having to home-school their children and the relatives of the 11 people who have died in this outbreak are unlikely to be thinking how much worse things could have been. They have seen case numbers climb each day – to a new high of 177 yesterday – and Sydney’s economic outlook worsen.
Data shows spending levels in Australia’s largest city are at the lowest levels since the pandemic began and the jobless outlook is grim. The country’s biggest bank, the Commonwealth, has warned NSW could lose 300,000 jobs over the coming months. It is hard to see how any of this can be classed as success.
Berejiklian says she doesn’t like to deal in hypotheticals and “does not have a crystal ball”. Delta, as she and her chief health officer, Kerry Chant, like to say, is a “game changer”, which prompted the pair to label the situation in Sydney a national emergency last week.
The new strain undoubtedly moves at a speed that was not experienced during the early days of the pandemic and it clearly took the government and its health officials by surprise. However, if Berejiklian wants us to focus on what could have been, that raises the very valid question of whether we could have avoided this prolonged lockdown in the first place if the crisis cabinet had moved more quickly to shut down the city. The hard and fast approach.
Almost empty streets in Cabramatta on Tuesday.Credit:Dean Sewell
As Melbourne emerged from its short and sharp lockdown on Wednesday, Sydney was being sentenced to another four weeks. So rather than comparing ourselves to the countries which have been swamped with Delta, it is more likely people are looking south to Victoria.
Victoria made significant mis-steps during last year and has endured five lockdowns to Sydney’s three (which includes the northern beaches over summer). But while Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has been heavily criticised for his enthusiasm for lockdowns, including by Berejiklian, his hard and fast approach has this time been vindicated.
A significant increase in vaccination rates will be Sydney’s best hope of beating Delta, but the re-fashioned lockdown and restrictions announced yesterday should slow the spread of the virus through the west and south-west of the city.
The introduction of a singles bubble for people living alone was critical because the mental health impacts of the pandemic cannot be underestimated; to be isolated for weeks on end without company is cruel. The concerted push to get year 12 students back to face-to-face learning also had to be a priority.
But despite a renewed push to combat Delta, there was an obvious contradictory message yesterday. The decision to allow the construction industry to restart fails to align with the trajectory of the virus. On the day the outbreak recorded its highest number of cases, Deputy Premier John Barilaro was delivering the news that the construction industry would be allowed to start operating again.
It was an odd, although expected, development, which suggests that either powerful voices in the construction sector managed to get their way, or the government’s snap decision to close work sites was ill-thought and failed to have any impact. If the latter is the case, it was a $1.4 billion mistake.
Berejiklian has also repeatedly talked of “green shoots” that have apparently been springing up along the way. At best, she is trying to give hope. At worst, she is deflecting from the reality that despite her previous strong management, this outbreak has gotten away from her.
The federal government’s deplorably slow rollout of the vaccine program has made Berejiklian’s task particularly hard, but nonetheless Sydney is where her government assured us we would never be again. Yes, Premier, life could have been much worse in Sydney without the lockdown. But there is a very real chance it could have been much better had it come earlier.
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