“They’re very modest tweaks, modest changes to account for the fact that everybody has had a very difficult year, some people’s stress levels and mental health capacities are already at breaking point and we want to try and put that against the current risks as we see them.”
The decision came after it was revealed a western Sydney healthcare worker was found to not have caught the virus from the sick overseas travellers she was transporting from the city’s airport.
Genome sequencing of the infection found it was instead associated with the northern beaches cluster, although the woman has no links to existing cases. One of the woman’s colleagues has also tested positive and was included in the cases announced on Wednesday.
The government’s crisis cabinet lasted more than two hours, with the group of senior ministers and the premier debating how to tailor an adequate public health response to the holiday period.
The group was largely content with where the new restrictions landed, according to one minister speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“All of us felt that we have to give something because it was Christmas and therefore our appetite for risk has just increased marginally,” they said after the meeting.
The minister said Christmas had “muddied” the decision making, conceding that the changes would not have been made if it were another time of year. They added there were concerns if Sydney loosened restrictions too much, the chance of other states opening their borders would diminish.
From Thursday to Saturday, northern beaches residents who live north of Narrabeen Bridge will be allowed to have five guests who also reside north of the bridge into their homes. Those south of the bridge, alongside greater Sydney, can have 10 guests, not including children under 12.
These “southern northern beaches” residents will also be able to host people from outside of the northern beaches, with a decision to be made as to whether they rejoin lockdown measures in the north on Sunday.
Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said, while it was her job to give government advice as to how it could “perfectly” respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, she acknowledged it was tempered by other factors.
“What we’re balancing is risk, balancing COVID risks, balancing mental health risks, balancing community wellbeing,” Dr Chant said.
But epidemiologists expressed mixed views of NSW’s plan as the Australian Medical Association warned against pushing forward with New Year’s celebrations while a virus cluster in the city continues to spread.
Infectious disease expert Professor Mary-Louise McLaws said lifting restrictions for Christmas in Sydney’s northern beaches was “asking for this cluster to continue”.
She said allowing people from other parts of Sydney to visit family in the southern part of the northern beaches “makes no sense”.
“It’s an emotive decision rather than a strict outbreak management decision,” she said.
UNSW Professor Raina MacIntyre said she was reassured by the two days of single-digit case numbers, but was “most anxious” about the first two weeks of January, which will be when authorities will learn whether the easing of restrictions was worth it.
“If there is some undetected community transmission on Christmas day, [it will] act as a superspreading event,” she said, adding “the people who get infected on Christmas day will be at the very peak of infectiousness on New Year’s Eve”.
The rules sparked confusion, even among those who signed off on them. In an appearance on 2GB on Wednesday afternoon, Health Minister Brad Hazzard suggested people might like to meet for Christmas lunch on Dee Why Beach, however NSW Health confirmed outdoor gatherings remain off-limits for northern beaches residents.
Surf Life Saving NSW said the 21 beaches in the Northern Beaches Local Government Area would remain unpatrolled over the weekend in light of the health order.
Tom Rabe is Transport Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.
Mary Ward is a health reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Jenny Noyes is a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald.