NSW restrictions will last months under ‘soft lockdown’ approach, epidemiologist says | New South Wales

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New South Wales’ coronavirus case numbers will keep bubbling along and restrictions will continue for months because of a “soft lockdown” approach that relies too heavily on people doing the right thing without clear guidance, a top epidemiologist says.

Prof Tony Blakely runs epidemiological modelling on Covid-19 for the University of Melbourne’s school of population and global health, and provided advice to the Victorian government during its prolonged second wave in 2020.

He says NSW needs to tighten its definition of essential workers and prioritise vaccinating those people if it wants to contain the Delta variant outbreak within weeks rather than months.

“I call what they are doing now ‘soft lockdown a la New South Wales’ and I have been very critical of this approach,” Blakely said.

He said it was crucial to get the the outbreak’s reproduction number – known as R0 – below one to slow the spread. The R0 is the number of cases expected to result from an infected individual in a susceptible, poorly vaccinated community. So if one person is infected and passes it on to five others, the R0 is five.

“I struggle to see how what they are doing will get the reproductive number to less than one,” Blakely said of NSW.

Blakely said to control the outbreak faster NSW’s restrictions should more closely resemble what Victoria had during stage-four lockdown in 2020.

“With the current measures, case numbers will keep bubbling along and NSW will be in a soft lockdown until vaccination numbers get high enough to upset the balance, but that could be months away,” Blakely said.

“And that means this strategy will see NSW in this limbo-land for a long period of time.”

On Tuesday, the NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian flagged tougher restrictions may be coming.

“I am hoping to make an announcement today or Thursday at the latest in relation to the future of the lockdown,” she said.

“I would love to say exactly when the end date will be but that is up to all of us, in part.”

Blakely said NSW has taken an approach that supported the autonomy of citizens to assess their own risk and decide if they were essential workers, or whether certain types of shopping were essential.

NSW needed to clarify the definition of essential worker, Blakely said, and then add those people to vaccination priority groups. Vaccines should be brought to them at work to make this quick and easy, he added.

Prof Brendan Crabb, director of the Burnet Institute, told the ABC’s 7.30 program on Monday that NSW should introduce a curfew like Victoria did, and that worst-case scenario, non peer-reviewed modelling suggests without a Victorian-style lockdown the outbreak will not be brought under control for months.

Blakely disputed whether a curfew was needed, saying they did little to prevent the most frequent chains of transmission. But a stricter lockdown tailored to NSW was needed to tackle the highly infectious Delta variant, he said, suggesting it should go beyond some Victorian measures and even see takeaway food venues and construction work stopped.

“I want to be proven wrong, but the chances of this lockdown succeeding is low. Though a harder lockdown would have higher cost to GDP, it would be over quicker, and as someone who knows this virus so well, I am struggling to see why they have not locked down harder yet,” he said.

Shoppers at a discount store in Sydney’s Fairfield area on 9 July. Blakely says the state should clarify its definitions of essential workers and shops. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Alexandra Martiniuk, an epidemiology professor with the University of Sydney, said NSW should investigate and reassess the allowed reasons to leave home, including for work and caregiving.

“From recent cases it appears this is largely when transmissions are occurring – work, medical care and potentially caregiving – as this may underlie the transmission between family households,” she said. “We could take further action on these, along with tightening other areas.”

For example, non-essential businesses should close to face-to-face contact, including Bunnings, Ikea, clothing stores and real estate agencies, she said.

But Martiniuk said it was difficult to assess the need for curfews and agreed with Blakely that other measures should be examined first.

“Parents with young children who are working from home, home-schooling their children … may wish to go for their one hour of Covid-safe outdoor exercise at 8pm when the kids finally get into bed. Or shift workers may want to take a walk after their shift ends.”

Mary-Louise McLaws, a professor of public health and advisor to the World Health Organization, said it was better to go too hard, too early with lockdowns – and then reduce restrictions if they aren’t needed.

“In new South Wales we didn’t lock down until day nine, and at that stage we had 54 cases,” she said. “You don’t need a model to basically say this was too late.”

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