In the past two weeks, Sydney has recorded 125 new locally acquired cases of COVID-19. This is more than each of the Crossroads and Thai Rock clusters. While far from being a second wave, the cluster that began in Avalon (or maybe Belrose) remains of concern. New infections have been acquired outside the northern beaches at pubs in Erskineville and Circular Quay, a workplace in the CBD and a cafe in Paddington. The potential for further transmission is real.
The impact of this outbreak on the lives of Sydneysiders has been significant. As of Sunday, the NSW Health website lists 164 exposure locations and 40 public transport routes where people may have been in close contact with an infected person. The economic impact, such as reduced CBD Boxing Day sales and interstate travel, is likely to be substantial. And, of course, it may continue for some time.
So how does the response to this outbreak rate against the hard lessons we’ve learned in Australia and overseas? The quick restriction of movement in the northern beaches compares favourably with Victoria’s tardy reaction to the emergence of a second wave in late June. However, it rates as “lockdown-lite” compared with the South Australian government’s response to the Parafield cluster. The actions of that government, although based on some misinformation, did limit the Adelaide cluster to just 22 people.
As we await the rollout of a vaccine, what interventions do we have in the toolkit to manage an outbreak like we’re witnessing in Sydney? Broadly speaking, there are two strategies. The first is an effective test-trace-isolate system. Clearly, this is working well in Sydney with record numbers of daily tests, reaching almost 70,000 on Christmas Eve. That essentially means that all infected people who get tested are isolated and so are unlikely to spread the virus. But no jurisdiction, including NSW, which justifiably has great confidence in its capacity, relies totally on this approach.