Mr Andrews said he feared the outbreak could be much larger, and warned that a lack of “significant additional action to slow the spread of the virus in NSW” was jeopardising Victoria’s 51 days without a local infection.
In response to the outbreak, the NSW government has reintroduced a 10-guest limit for private homes in greater Sydney, but only until Wednesday night, as well as a four-square-metres per person social distancing rule for indoor venues, where 300 people can still gather.
Health Minister Brad Hazzard has “encouraged” people to wear masks on public transport and in supermarkets.
Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity with UNSW, said without tougher measures, New Year’s Eve would become the “mother of all supreadpsreading events”. Each new infection now could spread to several others at Christmas celebrations, and they would be at their most infectious by New Year’s Eve, she said.
“It’s a really strong reason to use interventions early,” she said, suggesting a mandatory mask directive in NSW and a potential lockdown of greater Sydney.
Mr Andrews said there was “every chance” NSW did not have the outbreak under control. He advised Victorians in NSW to return home before midnight on Monday, in which case they could serve 14 days’ quarantine at home. After midnight, anyone who has visited greater Sydney or the Central Coast since December 11 must book into hotel quarantine. He advised every Victorian planning a festive trip north to cancel it.
“Can I also just give a clear message to every person in greater Sydney and the Central Coast: ‘Please do not come here’,” Mr Andrews said. “You must stay in your state to keep Victorians safe and play your part in a national COVID-19 policy response.”
Victoria’s testing chief Jeroen Weimar warned of lengthy delays at the border for those making a swift return before Monday’s midnight deadline.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also imposed travel restrictions on Sunday, shattering Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s hopes of a Christmas without internal borders.
With the list of exposure sites expanding across greater Sydney and regional NSW, the original source of the outbreak is yet to be identified by NSW authorities.
“There’s some missing links in that chain of transmission [in NSW], and that’s what really gives us significant concern,” Mr Andrews said. “This is always about what you don’t know – what’s happening out there that’s not visible to you, that you can’t control.”
In a worrying sign, at least 44 close and casual contacts connected to the cluster have been identified within Barwon Health’s catchment area after being identified at Avalon Airport. They were tested at the airport and asked to self-isolate at home while being monitored by Barwon Health’s public health unit. Barwon Health is based in Geelong but covers a wide area within Victoria’s south-west.
Barwon Health public health unit director Eugene Athan said almost 350 tests were conducted on Saturday at two community health centres in the Geelong suburb of Norlane and in Torquay. “Barwon Health has seen a significant increase in testing over the weekend at both … testing sites, including a number of returned travellers who were in Sydney on or after 11 December,” he said.
Only one other close contact has been identified in Victoria previously, a person who went into hotel quarantine on Friday.
The northern beaches outbreak, linked to events at Avalon bowling club and RSL on December 11 and 13, emerged on Thursday with 15 cases before growing by 23 on Saturday and 30 on Sunday.
While every infection has so far been confined to northern beaches residents, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said that beyond genomic sequencing identifying a strain from the United States similar to one in a returned traveller in hotel quarantine earlier this month, a team of investigators was still looking for patient zero.
“The problem we’ve got at the moment is I don’t know how it got there … and I don’t know if there are any undetected chains of transmission to the community,” Dr Chant said.
Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said shopping centres in Sydney’s east, trains in the inner-west and a McDonald’s in Raymond Terrace, two hours north of Sydney, were now exposure sites.
“It’s not turned the corner yet and I would expect more cases, the way that it’s grown in the last few days,” Professor Sutton said, “So I wouldn’t recommend people travelling into New South Wales. You don’t know the circumstances that you might be caught in, whether it’s in regional New South Wales or in Sydney.”
A Qantas spokesman said the airline and Jetstar experienced a “surge in bookings for flights” between Sydney and Melbourne following Mr Andrews’ announcement and also a large number of cancellations. Routes including Sydney-Brisbane and Sydney-Adelaide are nearly at full capacity. “We are seeing a high level of inquiry from customers travelling to and from Sydney looking to change their travel plans,” the spokesman said.
Australia’s acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly defended NSW’s response as “just about … right” and while it was “quite localised” for now, the success of locking down the northern beaches would become clear in a few weeks.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was in regular contact with premiers and “we’re working on the problem to get on top of it, to ensure we can return to as normal a COVID situation as we can as soon as possible”.
Residents in border towns will be largely unaffected by the changes, with every person from councils on either side of the border only requiring a driver’s licence to move freely.
Mr Weimar said up to 4000 people were due to fly into Melbourne from Sydney on Sunday, where they would be met by Victorian authorities and asked to undertake a COVID-19 test.
Three people who arrived in Melbourne from the northern beaches on Saturday were intercepted at the airport and sent into hotel quarantine.
Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry will release its final report on Monday, when it will make assessments on who was responsible for decisions and bungles in the program that sparked the state’s second wave.
With Paul Sakkal
Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.
Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.