A furphy, which Brown shot down in one fell swoop.
“Rach and I haven’t been out of the country since July of last year,” he told the Herald. “Have no idea what they’re talking about. Don’t have a personal trainer. Never had one in my life. Not in isolation. Just trying to have a merry Christmas like everyone else.”
As the numbers of COVID cases linked to the Avalon cluster swelled – from 83 on Monday to 104 on Christmas Eve and 108 on Christmas Day – so did waves of gossip.
By Wednesday it was former treasurer Joe Hockey who was forced to kill off a rumour linking him to the outbreak.
In a brusque tweet, Hockey said he was not “ground zero”, he had been in Australia for the past six weeks and had tested negative to COVID three times.
Northern beaches community Facebook pages proved fertile ground for the rumour mill, where locals only wanted to know one thing: Who was to blame for the Avalon cluster that killed Christmas?
Asked if the social media mission to solve the mystery was helpful, Dr Chant said it was ultimately unhelpful.
“I think it’s great there is so much enthusiasm in understanding epidemiology. It’s been a passion of mine,” she said earlier this week.
“But it’s really counterproductive to the public health response if we’re spending our time blaming or tracking down areas or asserting people did different stuff,” she said.
From a logistical point of view, you couldn’t have picked a better location for a coronavirus outbreak than the northern beaches. Authorities could literally raise a bridge to cut off a major access point to the hot zone if they so choose.
Not to mention, the beaches’ picturesque setting on the doorstep of a vulnerable major metropolitan. But the peninsula’s greatest defence against the virus is its tight-knit community, or so the public has been repeatedly told over the past week.
It’s a “very cohesive community”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says. The northern beaches“tends to keep to itself”.
But its inhabitants have bristled at the monocultural characterisation of an area that covers 254 square kilometres. Manly residents have grizzled at the perception that they share a back fence with Avalon locals 25 kilometres north, and Frenchs Forest residents born-and-raised swear they’ve never set foot on Palm Beach.
The NSW government’s crisis cabinet made the distinction official on Wednesday morning, cleaving the northern beaches into two. From Christmas Eve to midnight on Boxing Day, everything north of the Narrabeen Bridge and east of the Baha’i Temple was now the “northern” northern beaches.
The northern peninsula had just become even more insular with households allowed no more than five guests from this locked-down zone.
The southern zone of the northern beaches was allowed 10 guests – including family and friends from Greater Sydney – plus all the primary school-aged children they could fit around their Christmas trees, but the hosts cannot leave their own homes.
Meanwhile Greater Sydney was also limited to 10 guests plus children aged 12 and under.
It was as generous as the government could be, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
“What we’re allowing is the outer limit … it’s more about stretching what we think is appropriate at this time and we’re not prepared to take any further steps,” Berejiklian said.
Roy Chandler and his family have felt the burden of the northern beaches outbreak more than most.
Chandler lives on Avalon Parade, just metres from the Avalon Bowling Club at the heart of the outbreak.
“One corner of my property is the bowlo, the other is Pittwater Palms Retirement Village, where one staff member tested positive,” Chandler says.
His wife Julie is stuck in Queensland and forced into lockdown after she was told she was a casual contact of a positive case at Fitness First Mona Vale.
She missed Christmas with her family and will likely miss celebrating New Year’s Eve too. One of their sons is in lockdown in London.
Chandler’s main income – an Avalon property he rents on Airbnb – has dried up.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the worst off by any means but that’s the breaks,” Chandler says.
Health Minister Brad Hazzard – whose electorate of Wakehurst is on the northern beaches – acknowledged the slight easing of restrictions over the Christmas period did increase the risk of transmission, but it was a decision made to strike the right balance after a gruelling year for many families.
Epidemiologist Professor John Kaldor agreed it was a calculated risk.
“It’s not a particularly radical easing by any means, but an attempt to balance some semblance of observing Christmas gatherings with the need to protect public health,” the head of the public health interventions research group at UNSW’s Kirby Institute says.
“It appropriately reflects the fact that the vast majority of cases were picked up early and linked to the Avalon Cluster,” he says.
On Christmas Eve, there were six cases under investigation – source unknown, including four in Greater Sydney.
Of the two patient transport workers with COVID-19, one was genetically linked to the Avalon cluster, not the sick international travellers they had shuttled to quarantine. But health authorities had no idea how they caught it. There is another case whose genomic sequencing results are still pending.
These unlinked cases means there are missing links in the chains of transmission, and the very likely scenario that there are people in Greater Sydney unknowingly infected with COVID-19.
Could this easing of restrictions save Christmas for many only to risk outbreaks in the new year and harsher lockdowns?
“If you followed the most conservative of conservative approaches there is no question that restricting movement further would have lowered the risk but it could have had other adverse health consequences,” Professor Kaldor says, specifically the mental health effects.
“An alternative more aggressive strategy to shut things down could never have been proven wrong, and this one certainly could be if it moves in a bad way, but it is a judgment the government had to make. So far it hasn’t unfolded in a way that suggests there is extensive transmission.”
But Kaldor raised concerns about the decision not to further restrict the number of patrons in pubs and clubs.
“I know those venues are important for people’s social lives, but the question I would ask is whether it is appropriate at this time to allow up to 300 people in a pub where alcohol is served,” he says.
”Certainly venues where Avalon transmissions took place included an RSL and a bowling club.”
The overall strategy relied on NSW’s excellent COVID-19 response operations team and its contact tracers whose effectiveness at quashing outbreaks had been proven several times over the course of the pandemic.
Kaldor also credited the success of the strategy to the pathology teams in their laboratories and the network of testing clinics that enabled ready access to testing and rapid testing turnaround times.
The response from Sydney’s communities has been “beyond outstanding”, Berejiklian said on Christmas Eve. The Premier said she almost “fell off her chair” when she heard a record 60,184 tests had been carried out in the 24 hours to 8pm. On Christmas Day, she would report a new record, with 69,809 tests taken in the last reporting period.
People lined up for hours to get their swabs, some with the mildest sniffle or no symptoms at all but had visited venues marked as potential exposure sites.
Dr Chant was counting on the same enthusiasm over Christmas, having faith that people would forego their turkey lunches with loved ones for a Q-tip up the nose if they woke up on Christmas morning with COVID-symptoms.
But the northern beaches outbreak exposed a chink in Australia’s COVID-armour against the worst of the coronavirus pandemic: international airline crews, who have become a favoured “patient zero” prospect among armchair epidemiologists.
The fact that many pilots and cabin stewards have homes on the northern beaches is just too juicy a coincidence to be ignored.
International air crew have been largely unencumbered by restrictions on arrival in NSW; exempt from quarantine, not obligated to be tested for COVID-19 and permitted to self-isolate at one of more than 25 hotels or at their own homes.
Earlier this month, 13 crew members on a LATAM Airlines Chile flight were each fined $1000 for leaving their hotel in Mascot for a night out.
Then a van driver who shuttled US air crew from the airport to their accommodation last week tested positive for COVID-19. The alarm bells that had been ringing for weeks were now deafening.
With a growing COVID-cluster to contain, the state government’s patience with airline negotiations had run dry. Foreign crews are now restricted to one of two hotels supervised by police and NSW Health in response to mounting frustrations within the state government over international airlines’ patchy compliance with protocols.
The move couldn’t have come soon enough, with news that a potent mutation of the COVID-19 virus SARS-CoV2 had been detected in patients in the UK.
Dr Chant confirmed this week that there are two people with the more virulent strain – reported to be 70 per cent more infectious than the previously circulating strains – in Sydney’s hotel quarantine system.
Another mutated, potentially more infectious strain was detected in South Africa on Wednesday.
Only a handful of foreign airlines are still flying to Australia, among them Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Qatar, and American carriers United and Delta.
The federal government is responsible for approving which foreign airlines can operate in Australia, but once air crew step out of the airport they are subject to state regulations while the pandemic is ongoing.
“There is no standard international approval; each airline has different conditions under which they are negotiated. So it limits the level of control that can be exercised without having impacts on other agreements, like trade agreements,” says industry expert Brian Wilson.
“There is strong political overlay here,” Wilson says. “You can only imagine the backlash if Australia was to boot out or deny a Chinese carrier at the moment.”
The NSW government this week also moved to enhance restrictions on domestic air crews returning from international COVID-19 hotspots.
All Qantas crew that land in NSW from international COVID-19 hotspots are required to undertake a swab at the airport before being allowed to wait for their results at home.
An earlier version of the plan, circulated to crew members this week, allowed those living interstate to take a test and immediately board a domestic flight to their home state so long as they sat “a suitable distance” from other passengers.
But the proposal sparked a significant backlash from other states and territories, forcing NSW Health to amend the regulation on Monday afternoon. Interstate crew members can now only fly home on a plane with no passengers.
The new precautions were too late to prevent a Qantas crew member from flying into Darwin airport from overseas and hopping on a flight to Sydney while unknowingly infectious. All passengers on board the December 17 flight are now considered close contacts and directed to self-isolate for 14 days over Christmas.
Ground transport crew who ferry air crew from the airport are the biggest remaining risk. These workers are permitted to take a taxi or other transport home from the airport before receiving the results of their swab test.
When not a single COVID-patient in NSW’s intensive care units, it’s difficult to remember what’s at stake. The catastrophic impact of an unbridled outbreak is but a spectre when all you wanted was to pop those Christmas crackers after a bruising year.
Yet the US is recording more than 200,000 cases and 3000 deaths per day. More than 40 countries have banned travellers from the UK to protect their citizens from the more virulent strain of the virus.
In Sydney, researchers at St Vincent’s Hospital and the Kirby Institute found 40 per cent of people recovering from their COVID-19 infections are left with symptoms that persist for weeks, if not months, including fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches and headaches.
The Avalon cluster may dry up as the daily case numbers drop, but the magnitude of the threat is not lost on Dr Chant and the state’s COVID-19 defence team.
On Christmas Day she and the Premier implored people to steer clear of Boxing Day sales in the CBD and take a different approach. ‘‘You have a number of alternatives: shop online, shop locally, and defer and delay and avoid crowded environments. And please, if you’re going into those shopping sales, please wear a mask.’’
There’ll be more than a few virus detectives in NSW’s COVID-HQ hoping that Sydney’s small Christmas reprieve won’t come back to bite them in the new year.
With Garry Maddox
Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Lucy Cormack is a state political reporter with The
Sydney Morning Herald.