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Australia From COVID-19 'gold standard' to ‘a national emergency’ — the five weeks that changed everything

23:27  24 july  2021
23:27  24 july  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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When NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet strutted into Parliament to deliver this year's state budget on June 22, the mood was one of unbridled optimism.

The period of coronavirus lockdown induced economic turmoil seemed to be coming to an end, and, as Perrottet declared on budget night, NSW was "open for business".

Sydneysiders were promised a return to revelry, with long Friday lunches for CBD workers on the government's tab and an extension to the Dine & Discover vouchers for all residents.

"Our goal has always been to lock down the virus, not lock down the state," he said, touting the state's miraculous financial recovery, resulting in a predicted surplus by 2024-25.

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But little did Perrotett know, the virus that had caused so much devastation and disruption over the past year was circling. It was, as he delivered his Budget night speech, right there in the building.

A day earlier, NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall had unknowingly contracted COVID-19 while at Christo's Pizzeria in Paddington. His positive test, revealed two days after the budget, shut down NSW Parliament House and forced politicians, staffers and journalists into isolation.

But even as the virus invaded the corridors of power, there were only about 50 known COVID-19 cases in the state.

NSW residents — who had become used to the state's "gold standard" contract tracing — had no reason to believe this outbreak wouldn't be contained quickly, without lockdown, just like in the past.

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Five weeks that changed everything

Just a month later, the outlook is very different. Dine and Discover vouchers sit unused in inboxes, with half the country confined to their homes under strict stay-at-home orders. Businesses are once again crying out for support, forced to shut their doors. Rescheduled weddings that were postponed last year are once again up in the air.

In Sydney, daily case numbers are, for the first time since April last year, regularly topping a hundred. After another record day of cases on Friday, NSW Chief Medical Officer Kerry Chant declared the outbreak "a national emergency".

Melbourne, too, hit a record this week for most daily cases this year, with 26 on Thursday, but with a much smaller percentage of infectious people in the community

In a week of broken records for NSW, Friday's didn't last long, with 163 cases reported on Saturday, just as an anti lockdown protest — one of several held across the nation — was brewing on the CBD's outskirts.

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By lunchtime, it had turned ugly, with footage showing brawling on residential streets, clashes with police and thousands of people — many unmasked — taking over streets that had largely been empty for weeks.

The dire state of the COVID-19 situation is reflected in international media coverage, too. Headlines lauding Australia as a pandemic success story have been replaced by CNN's Sydney in lockdown, borders shut and hardly anyone vaccinated and the BBC's How Delta exposed Australia's pandemic weaknesses in June to the Washington Post's 'A search for villains': As Australia's outbreak grows, so does COVID shaming this week.

Two other cities — Melbourne and  Adelaide — remain in lockdown, but with cases trending down and residents hopeful that restrictions will soon lift.

In Sydney, however, tension, frustrations and fear are high and the mood is low.

How did we get here?

An unvaccinated limousine driver and an international flight crew were the first misstep. The driver, a resident of Sydney's eastern beaches and involved in the transport of airline crews, tested positive on June 16; hours later his wife also returned a positive test.

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From there, the virus moved quickly through Sydney's eastern suburbs, with a number of transmissions recorded at Westfield Bondi Junction. At this stage, the outbreak — referred to then as the Bondi cluster — seemed to be largely contained and authorities held off introducing any restrictions on movement.

But then it moved west. On June 23, a birthday party in West Hoxton emerged as a major seeding event. At least 45 positive cases have been linked to the party.

Shortly after, nine days after the first positive test, that the first round of restrictions were introduced; a 7-day stay-at-home-order for the Woollahra, Waverley, Randwick and City of Sydney local government areas.

Just over 24 hours later, this became a two-week lockdown of Greater Sydney, Wollongong, the Central Coast, Blue Mountains and Shellharbour. And, a month later, we are still here — with restrictions getting progressively tighter, particularly for residents of south-west and west Sydney.

While the NSW government was lauded for their management of past outbreaks, this one was different. Importantly, it was Australia's first major outbreak of the Delta variant — estimated to be at least 100 per cent more transmissible than earlier strains.

"We've just found this new variant on our doorstep that makes a fundamental difference," said Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University.

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"Someone, and unfortunately it was Sydney, had to find out the hard way that contract tracing wasn't going to work [anymore]."

Not only is the Delta variant more likely to spread between people, it has also shortened the time between a person contracting the virus and becoming infectious.

"We've lost two days, we think," Dr Bennett said. This puts contract tracers well and truly on the back foot, unable to rely on the previous method of ensuring all close contacts of a positive case were in isolation before they became infectious.

"You lose two days with this one, and the best contact tracers in the world can't get in front of the virus," she said. "Even knowing about it pretty well immediately, it's not enough."

Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshi echoed this sentiment on Friday, warning: "Australia's lockdown strategy — that has worked so well with all previous outbreaks we've had — is simply not strong enough, not fast enough, to deal with Delta."

Jumping the border

Once the virus had entered the community in Sydney, it didn't take long for it to find its way across state borders.

In this instance, the leak took the form of two removalists from south-west Sydney, who, on July 8, travelled across state lines to deliver furniture to a home in the Melbourne while infectious.

After coming into contact with numerous people in Victoria — and inadvertently seeding an outbreak that would lead to the state's fifth lockdown — the pair travelled on to South Australia, leaving behind a trail of exposure sites.

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As the Melbourne cluster hit 18 cases on July 15, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews pulled the trigger on a five-day, state-wide lockdown, which has since been extended.

"I apologise to all Victorians that this is necessary," he said at the time. "Nothing about this virus is fair."

Within days, a separate outbreak of the Delta variant in South Australia was linked to an 81-year-old man who recently arrived from Argentina and was quarantined in Sydney before travelling to Adelaide.

A cross-border war of words erupted. As Sydneysiders prepared to endure their fifth weekend at home, with no end to the lockdown in sight, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews called for tougher restrictions.

"We need a ring of steel around Sydney so that this virus is not spreading to other parts of our nation," he said. "We will finish up with the whole country in lockdown if we don't do this properly."

Hitting back at Andrew's statement on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: "I'm quite certain that people living in Greater Sydney do not feel they are under loose restrictions."

Vaccines, too, are a hot topics, with other states rebuffing NSW's pleas for some of their share of the Pfizer vaccine.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said on Saturday he was disappointed.

"I can't quite see the difference between beating back fires and addressing the problems of floods, and beating back this COVID virus," he said.

"If it gets worse here in New South Wales, it could actually create massive problems for the whole country. New South Wales is the gateway to the rest of Australia."

But South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said the situation shouldn't devolve to "political point-scoring".

"The reality is that we are in a major emergency declaration in South Australia, we're in the middle of a lockdown, and we just can't possibly be sending our vaccines to another state," he said.

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"We've got to protect our population and we will be doing everything we can to do exactly and precisely that."

'The data is quite revealing'

Addressing the public after Friday's National Cabinet meeting, Morrison was cautiously optimistic about the Sydney outbreak.

"What I would note, for the data we see coming out in NSW, is they have prevented the exponential growth we have seen in other countries, which has taken hold with Delta," he said.

"When you have exponential growth in cases that's what you would call out of control. And that's not occurring in NSW."

The number of positive cases in the community while infectious, however, continues to grow.

"If you plot that on a line graph, the seven-day average is a bit of an exponential. There are some dips ... but it's still an upward trend," Daswin De Silva, an associate professor in analytics at La Trobe University, said.

"That data is quite revealing and should be concerning to everyone."

But for anyone feeling deja-vu, the availability — albeit, limited — of vaccines means this outbreak is markedly different to last year's.

Since the multiple outbreaks were detected, the roll-out has picked up the pace to more than a million doses a week.

More first doses of Pfizer are also set to become available in NSW by increasing the time between the two jabs from three to six weeks.

"Having a few more people vaccinated after a couple of weeks, that will start to have an impact, even if they only get vaccinated tomorrow," Dr Bennett said.

In the meantime, she said, it's important for everyone to remember that measures such as lockdowns, that break the chain of transmission, do work.

"If people know how it works, and believe it can work, they will work harder at it in the short-term," she said, "and that will get you out faster".

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gold price in view: What speaks in August for Gold .
After its significant burglary in June, the gold price has come back now. And the prospects for the yellow precious metal are loud Stanko Iliev, Financial Analyst at Invey, also good for August. © Provided by finanzen.net Spencer Platt / Getty Images • Fed wants to stay with looser monetary policy • Analyst Stanko Iliev is bullish for Gold • Delta variant could help gold in June the gold price fell temporarily from over 1,900 Dollars at nearly $ 1,750 dollars.

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