Why Sydney's COVID-19 lockdown is likely to be extended again

Greater Sydney’s COVID-19 lockdown has been extended three times – and people should brace for it to happen again, according to an infectious diseases expert.

On Wednesday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the stay-at-home orders affecting Greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Central Coast, Wollongong and Shellharbour would be extended until 12:01am on 28 August.

By then, more than six million people will have been living in lockdown for nine weeks.

But Professor Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist from the University of South Australia, says there are two reasons the lockdown is likely to be extended beyond that point.

The first is the NSW government’s vaccination target: it wants to see 10 million doses administered, or 80 per cent of the adult population inoculated, before life can return to a pre-COVID state. 

The second is the number of people who have been infectious in the community, which has grown steadily throughout the course of this outbreak.

“Unfortunately, no matter what target NSW sets, the lockdown is likely to go well into September,” Professor Esterman said.

Ms Berejiklian wants to see 10 million jabs delivered in NSW.

In the past six months, there’s been roughly 2.5 million doses administered in NSW and, while the rollout is speeding up, Professor Esterman said it would take longer than four weeks to get the other 7.5 million in arms.

On Wednesday, about 78,000 doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccine were administered in NSW, 42,000 of which were first doses.

Australia’s vaccination program is gaining momentum.

Earlier this month, a milestone was reached when more than one million vaccines were administered nationally in a week.

people lining up outside a vaccination hub
The NSW government has set 80 per cent as its vaccination target. (AAP: Bianca De Marchi)

This week, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) – which regulates medicine in Australia – changed its advice, paving the way for anyone over the age of 18 to get the AstraZeneca shot. 

Previously, the Pfizer vaccine had been preferred for Australians under the age of 60.

The AstraZeneca shot is now being administered in pharmacies around NSW, particularly in Sydney’s west and south-west, where the current outbreak is most pronounced.

The NSW government is also diverting Pfizer shots from regional areas to Sydney’s west, where Year 12 students aged between 16 and 18 will be eligible, in a bid to save this year’s HSC exams.

But Professor Esterman said while beneficial to individual safety, the vaccination of high schoolers will do little to help the case numbers.

an elderly man looking and smiling
Professor Esterman says despite NSW’s targets, the lockdown will go until September. (Supplied)

“It is better to tackle situations where people meet at random, like in shopping centres, rather than schools where everyone knows each other,” he said.

“They would be better off giving priority to retail workers rather than schoolchildren.”

So far, 11.59 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered across the country.

In NSW, as of 28 July, just over 38 per cent of people aged over 16 have had at least one COVID-19 shot.

Tougher restrictions needed
At her daily press conference on Wednesday, Ms Berejiklian remained optimistic the lockdown would end in late August.

“I hope we achieve what we want to achieve in the next four weeks,” she said.

“That in large part is for all of us … we can’t afford to have any setbacks.”

Speaking later in the day, Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a more vague timeline.

“We will be living life different at Christmas than we are now,” he said.

Ms Berejiklian has consistently highlighted one statistic as being pivotal: the number of COVID-19 patients who are infectious in the community.

The numbers have fluctuated from as low as two to as high as 60 during the outbreak, and have been sitting steadily at around 40 cases per day during the past week.

Professor Esterman said while infections were not rising exponentially, “it does not look as if we have reached the peak of the epidemic curve yet”.

While all of Greater Sydney and its surrounds are living in lockdown, the harshest restrictions are in place in the eight local government areas of Cumberland, Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown, Liverpool, Blacktown, Georges River, Campbelltown, and Parramatta.

Professor Esterman said more needed to be done, and that Melbourne and Adelaide had both seen tougher lockdowns in previous outbreaks.

“I cannot see why the outbreak in NSW will start resolving unless further restrictions are introduced, or a much higher percentage of Sydney people are vaccinated.

“And we still haven’t seen whether the protest marches have become a super-spreading event.”

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