COVID-19: Sydney outbreak should serve as 'wake-up call' for complacent New Zealanders - Michael Baker

Latest 21/12/2020

This article was written by Newshub reporter Lana Andelane

The escalating cluster of coronavirus cases in Sydney's Northern Beaches should serve as a wake-up call for New Zealanders lulled into a false sense of security, says one of the country's leading epidemiologists.

"It's such a wake-up call for us because that could be us tomorrow," University of Otago epidemiologist and Professor of Public Health, Michael Baker, told Magic Talk on Monday morning. 

Thirty new people tested positive for the virus on Sunday, expanding the cluster to almost 70 cases. Of the 30 new infections, 28 have been directly linked to the Avalon cluster, named after a small community in the Northern Beaches. The remaining two - also residents of the Northern Beaches - are under investigation, but are believed to be connected to the outbreak.

The Northern Beaches are currently under a stringent three-day lockdown, in a bid to stamp out the spread of the virus ahead of the holiday festivities. In a similar vein to New Zealand's first lockdown earlier this year, residents are only permitted to leave their homes for crucial reasons, including food shopping, essential work, exercise and accessing medical care.

On Sunday, New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that further restrictions would be imposed from midnight, with residents in Greater Sydney - including the Central Coast, Illawarra-Shoalhaven and Blue Mountains - no longer permitted to have more than 10 people in their homes. Hospitality venues and places of worship will revert to the four-square-metre social distancing measure, and singing and dancing is not permitted in indoor venues. The restrictions will remain in place until the end of the Northern Beaches lockdown at midnight on Wednesday. 

Like Auckland's outbreak of locally-acquired cases in August, the source of the current cluster remains unknown.

"We're all trying to learn about this virus and we're largely succeeding most of the time - but we know things can go wrong," Baker told Magic Talk.

Michael Baker. Photo credit: RNZ
Michael Baker. Photo credit: RNZ

"What's happening over there now is very much like our Auckland August outbreak - you've got cases in the community, you don't know where they've come from, and that always means you've got more cases you can't see - so it may take them several weeks to get it under control unfortunately."

Baker said it was "bad luck" that COVID-19 had once again found a foothold in the NSW capital, but acknowledged that previous lockdown measures had been more relaxed than those enforced in New Zealand.

"I think NSW has always been a bit more laissez faire than New Zealand and that's one of the difficulties there - they've tolerated more violations and their lockdown has been less intense," Baker suggested.

"This is just really bad luck, what's happening to them at the moment, because they had eliminated it.

"And again, it's a huge reminder to New Zealand - that could be us."

Sydney's Northern Beaches. Photo credit: Getty
Sydney's Northern Beaches. Photo credit: Getty

He says it's unlikely that plans for a trans-Tasman travel bubble will be affected by the worsening outbreak, echoing the same sentiment as Auckland University infectious diseases physician Mark Thomas. On Saturday, Thomas noted that March - the deadline tentatively in place for the two-way air bridge  - is still far off, and the current cluster shouldn't delay plans to open trans-Tasman travel in the first quarter of 2021.

"It all comes down to how rapidly they can contain it - if they are successful, and I'm sure they will be - then we're back on track," Baker reiterated. 

"This can happen anywhere in Australia or New Zealand - even if you're doing everything right, you can still have some unexpected thing happen - usually a mistake of some sort -  and then you learn from that and you tidy things up."

Travel restrictions in place in Sydney.
Travel restrictions in place in Sydney.

He suggested more effort should be put into quarantining people prior to travel, ensuring those who are infected do not spread it to other passengers - who will subsequently bring the virus into the destination country.

"It's the same basic lesson - we need to put much more effort into turning down the tap overseas with this virus, and reducing the number of infected people getting on planes in the first place."

Premier Berejiklian is expected to announce the latest update on the Northern Beaches cluster on Monday afternoon.

This article was written by Newshub reporter Lana Andelane