Unfortunately, the house included at least one person contagious with COVID-19. By yesterday morning, NSW Health had identified 23 people in the northern beaches cluster as attending the Avalon Bowlo that fateful afternoon, while 15 people attended the Avalon RSL two days earlier. “Several” people attended both venues.
But now both venues and the entire beaches region are locked down, with residents facing $1100 fines for leaving their homes unless for an approved reason, as NSW Health scrambles to avoid a disastrous COVID-19 resurgence that has already spooked Sydney and ruined Christmas for many families either struck by the virus or hit by renewed border closures.
The speed of the outbreak has been rapid. One case among the 38 now linked to the cluster fell ill on Thursday, December 10. The RSL gig took place the next night and the bowlo gig two nights after that, on December 13. By the Wednesday, December 16, a van driver working at Sydney Airport tested positive and by that afternoon, so had the first two beaches cases.
That evening, Health Minister Brad Hazzard fronted the media and revealed one of those cases was “working in a band” that had played at many RSLs around Sydney, including Avalon. He also named the band, Nothing Too Serious, which immediately set reporters on the man’s trail and infuriated his band mates.
By Thursday lunchtime, three cases had grown to five, raising eyebrows among those plugged closely into the news. In the Sydney CBD a senior political figure, informed by the Herald about the new cases, scrambled to bring forward his flight home for Christmas lest jumpy interstate premiers shut their borders again.
On the beaches there were long queues at pop-up clinics, including Michelle and Geoff Porter who had been at the Avalon bowlo gig on Sunday. “I was doing handstands, I licked the floor at some point and now I’m not sure that was a good idea,” Mr Porter told the Herald.
Elsewhere in town, however, the scene was positively bacchanalian. At the Ivy’s Uccello restaurant, diners were toasting the end of the working year with good champagne and lobster tagliatelle. On a sticky, sunny day, office Christmas parties raged long into the afternoon.
But inside NSW Health it was a much more sober state of affairs. The 300-strong team of contact tracers and hundreds of departmental staff had been hoping for a quiet holiday period after a hellish year. But that all evaporated.
“Christmas is cancelled for me,” lamented one ministry insider. “I’d just got my weekends back and then the northern beaches blew up. We knew it could happen and we were prepared but I think we were all hoping we’d skate through to 2021.”
By the 2.30pm briefing on Thursday it was clear the situation was deteriorating as the cases piled up. Most crucially, tracers still had no idea how the virus got to the northern beaches. Sewage testing on December 10 in the area was negative, although by Wednesday (December 16) it was positive.
Local MP James Griffin was marvelling at a sparkling Manly beach around 4pm when he began receiving a flurry of calls and text messages from Hazzard, who also lives on the beaches. “This is looking pretty bad,” the Health Minister warned.
Senior NSW Health officers also spent much of Thursday in crisis meetings with airlines over breaches of procedure. Thirteen crew members on a LATAM Chile flight from South America were each fined $1000 for leaving their Mascot hotel and attending nearby venues.
Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant met with Qantas’ director of medical services, Dr Ian Hosegood, late on Thursday afternoon. Qantas’ position remained unchanged; it wanted airlines to be able to self-manage quarantine arrangements for their staff and exemptions for crew to remain.
As they met, cases on the northern beaches were blowing out. Around 6pm the cluster had grown to 17 and NSW Health’s communications team was scrambling to publicise the message: residents needed to stay home and get tested urgently. The TV news bulletins were already going to air.
Hazzard also got a COVID-19 test that night – his second in about two weeks – after displaying hayfever symptoms. The test was negative but he also cancelled his Queensland travel plans. “I’m hoping I get a refund from Virgin, if you’re listening,” he told reporters the next morning.
Also at that Friday press conference, a wary Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced a crackdown on requirements for air crew; they would be contained at two hotels near the airport rather than 26 different hotels around the city.
For contact tracers in Sydney’s Public Health Units, the restrictions could not come soon enough. Frustrations have been bubbling away from months that these international jetsetters were the weak spot in the state’s COVID defences.
No clear chain has been drawn between international travellers or airline crew members and the northern beaches cluster. But by Saturday afternoon Professor Paul Kelly, the federal acting chief medical officer, was confident the strain was the same as that of a passenger who arrived in hotel quarantine on December 1.
“So in a sense that’s patient zero,” he said. “There’s a gap there. We haven’t identified how that virus got to the Avalon RSL. We have a clue though overnight about the slightly earlier case from Anytime Fitness. That person became ill on the 10th. So we’re getting closer to closing that gap.”
As Kelly spoke the Avalon cluster stood at 38 and growing, and 275,000 northern beaches residents were preparing to go into a hard lockdown due to expire for Christmas Eve, but with no guarantees.
From his electorate office, James Griffin said he could see lots of people “stocking up” at nearby supermarkets. It was disappointing to see his electorate go back into lockdown, he said, “but if that’s what it is gonna take, it’s what we need to do”.
with Pallavi Singhal
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Michael Koziol is deputy editor of The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney.
Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Lucy Cormack is a state political reporter with The
Sydney Morning Herald.