Sydney residents will spend at least two more weeks in lockdown, and possibly longer, as the state grapples with a continuing cluster of cases in the city’s south-west and smaller outbreaks in other areas.
New South Wales reported a further 97 cases of Covid-19 in the 24 hours to Tuesday night, but authorities were concerned that at least 24 of these were not in isolation during their infectious period.
The cases were heavily concentrated in Fairfield, with 70 cases in the south-west Sydney health district, where testing centres were overwhelmed and queues stretched over a kilometre.
The government also nominated Roselands, Rosebery, Canterbury, Belmore, Sutherland, St George, Windsor, St Ives, Penrith and Bayside municipalities as areas of concern.
It followed an announcement on Tuesday that workers leaving the Fairfield local government area for essential work would need to get tested every three days and workers travelling to the regions would need a test once a week. The rule was initially due to come in at 12.01 on Tuesday night but now does not take effect until Saturday.
“It always hurts to say this, but we need to extend the lockdown at least a further two weeks from Friday 16 July to Friday 30 July, the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said.
“I want to provide certainty on behalf of the government to the community that the lockdown will be extended for at least another two weeks with the current settings,” Berejiklian said.
“That includes home learning. However, we will assess the situation at the end of those two weeks and provide information beyond,” she said.
Amid complaints about long wait times at Fairfield’s main testing site following the announcement, the government said on Wednesday afternoon that Fairfield Showground would commence testing 24-hours a day from 6am on Thursday.
A new 24 hour drive-through testing clinic will also open in the Mounties Club car park on Humphries Road in Mount Pritchard from 10am tomorrow, the government said in a statement, while a number of other clinics would extend their opening hours.
Late on Wednesday, NSW Health released a list of new exposure venues including sites for close contacts in Redfern, Fairfield and Cabramatta.
Premier urges workers to stay at home
The government is targeting zero cases where people were in the community while infectious. It has struggled to get the message through that people need to isolate and avoid moving around, particularly in communities that are heavily dependent on jobs involving face-to-face work, such as trades, retail and caring.
The premier and the chief medical officer, Kerry Chant, continued to refuse to define what is regarded as essential work, other than to say it included aged care support.
The areas of concern were the Fairfield local government area, Roselands, Rosebury, Canterbury, Belmore, Sutherland shire, the St George area, Windsor, St Ives, Penrith and Bayside local government area.
The government was hoping that new payments to business and individuals announced on Tuesday would provide greater flexibility for workers to stay at home rather than be driven by financial concerns.
“Of course we want to see this lockdown end in a timely way, but no matter how long we do need, we will have that support for businesses and individuals,” Berejiklian said.
She said the mobility data, which was available from mobile phones, showed that Fairfield residents had heeded the warning to only leave home if travelling to essential work or to get essential supplies.
But she said the government remained concerned about the level of movement in surrounding areas.
The government again declined to say what it regarded as an essential service or essential work, putting the onus on the individual and the employer to determine whether their job was essential.
“Please consider what you regard as essential work,” the premier said.
“Do not leave the home unless you absolutely have to.”
Hopes pinned on financial support
The financial support package was targeted at both business cash flow, administered through Service NSW, and payments to individuals who lose hours, through Services Australia.
For businesses to be eligible they must show a fall in turnover compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2019 and they must not reduce their payroll.
“The incentive is that workers across the state are still on the books so they can apply through Services Australia for that payment of up to $600 per week. What we want to see that connection between workers and the business continue through this lockdown period,” the NSW treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, said.
The state government has said the business support package would cost $4.1bn and it expected 230,000 businesses could take advantage of it. The treasurer declined to say what proportion of the workforce would claim payments for lost shifts.
Unlike the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who accused the Victorian government of whingeing over the NSW package, Perrottet thanked the Victorian treasurer, Tim Pallas, for his help.
“The relationship I have with both Liberal and Labor treasurers has been crucial. They had gone through difficult times in the past in Victoria and in Queensland, and we always work together to share information,” he said.
But he appeared to deny a report in the Australian Financial Review that during discussions of the Sydney northern beaches lockdown last Christmas he had called for the state’s top medical adviser, Dr Kerry Chant, to be given a pay cut, after she called for strict movement controls to be extended over the new year.
Both Perrottet and Chant said they could not recall the comment.
The premier said she was at all the crisis cabinet meetings during the northern beaches lockdown and that “it’s not true”.
According to the Australian Financial Review, Perrottet had made the comment because he believed public officials were insulated from the economic consequences of their decisions.
Perrottet is known for his quirky sense of humour. He said on Wednesday that NSW cabinet crisis meetings were always “constructive discussions” in balancing the health advice and impact on business from lockdowns.