Gladys Berejiklian took just 10 minutes to crush the hopes of everyone in NSW who believed her promise that vaccination would give them their lives back.
Her incredibly glum Covid briefing on Monday announced a record 478 cases in Sydney’s outbreak on day 52 of a seemingly unending lockdown.
But it was the last few minutes that drove a dagger into the hearts of anyone daring to have even an ounce of optimism that restrictions would start to lift in September.
Under a barrage of questions demanding to know when life would get any better, the premier appeared to all but reverse her position on the way out of Covid hell.
‘Because case numbers are so high, do we need those case numbers to come down so even if we get to 80 per cent double dose we won’t get out of lock down?’ she was asked.
Mr Berejiklian, in a rambling and repetitive series of answers, essentially said that without drastically fewer cases, lockdown could continue all year.
‘Even if you get to 80 per cent double doses, if the case numbers are very high, it does limit what you can do,’ she said.
NSW residents who got vaccinated will be gutted in the likely event they not only get next to no relief come August 28, and downright depressed if they’re still locked down in November
Australia is supposed to largely do away with lockdowns at a vaccination rate of 70 per cent, a plan that was agreed to by every state and territory at a National Cabinet meeting last month.
But the premier said the Doherty report, on which the path out of the pandemic is based, linked 30 to 40 cases a day to that milestone.
‘You can live life more freely than what you are today, but the extent of your freedom depends on case numbers,’ she said.
‘If you have 500 cases a day at 80 per cent, that is dangerous still to say “let it rip”. You can’t let it rip.’
Ms Berejiklian’s comments were a marked departure from her promise over the past few weeks to slightly ease lockdown next month if NSW hit six million jabs, and get us out of lockdown at 70 to 80 per cent in October or so.
Like any politician, she never outright guaranteed anything concrete and on Monday still wouldn’t give much of a straight answer.
But voters took her at her word and rallied in their millions to get vaccinated, and are on track to hit the six million mark with a week to spare.
They will be gutted in the likely event they not only get next to no relief come August 28, and downright depressed if they’re still locked down in November.
Ms Berejiklian surely knew this, but spent weeks implying her vaccine targets would set us free. If she knew they wouldn’t be enough, she should have been straight with us from the start.
Gladys Berejiklian took just 10 minutes on Monday to crush the hopes of everyone in NSW who believed her promise that vaccination would give them their lives back
Sydneysiders took her at her word and rallied in their millions to get vaccinated, and are on track to hit the six million mark with a week to spare
Who or what has got to the premier and rattled her enough to change her tune is unclear, but she is now instead is talking about drastically fewer cases not just as a nice to have, but a requirement for reopening.
One would hope the worrying escalation of daily case numbers in the past week would be heading down by then, but getting to 30 to 40 seems fanciful.
Delta is clearly a different animal to the original Covid, and after seven weeks of lockdown and nothing to show for it, it’s hard to believe they will ever stop as there are no harder restrictions that actually work.
Even the most hardline lockdown advocates are starting to admit NSW is unlikely to ever get back to zero cases, so transmissible is this strain of Covid.
That could doom Sydney to never getting out of lockdown, even if well over 80 per cent of its residents are vaccinated.
Academics warned about this just a day earlier, pointing out the huge difference in cases between opening up with low and high – by Australian standards – case numbers predicted in the Doherty report.
‘If you open up at 70 per cent vaccination with 30 cases, by the time you get to 80 per cent vaccination you may have 100 infections per day, for example,’ Monash University infectious-diseases modeller Michael Lydeamore told The Age.
‘If you open up with 400 cases, you’re well over the 1,000 mark after the same period.’
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But worse than Ms Berejiklian’s shifting of the goalposts on leaving the Covid hell of lockdown, is what she said about getting out of Covid purgatory.
‘We will need to live with restrictions so long as Delta is around… even if we had zero cases and we were at 80 per cent double dose, you would still have to respect rules that exist… around social distancing, around mask-wearing,’ she said.
‘So long as Delta and deadly Covid is around, we will always need to live with a measure of restriction.’
Such talk sounds dangerously like the zero-Covid declarations of Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan made on Sunday.
Ms Berejiklian was directly asked about this, and in a long rambling answer rejected the Covid-zero approach, insisting ‘we are not going to wipe this out’.
‘To suggest that we are going to have zero the whole way through until the pandemic ends across the world is I don’t think a realistic proposition,’ she said.
Western Sydney is enduring the worst of the lockdown with punishing rules stopping them from leaving their neighbourhoods
But just minute later she was, in a baffling contradiction, strongly advocating restrictions of some description for as long as Covid existed.
This is not at all what National Cabinet agreed upon in building the roadmap out of the pandemic using the Doherty report.
Neither is it what reasonable Australians who got their vaccines, stayed inside, checked in with a QR code to everything from Coles to the pub, and struggled to breathe through a mask for the past 18 months, agreed to.
Vaccines were supposed to let us treat coronavirus like the flu, as though vaccines don’t protect everyone from catching it, they do a very good job at preventing serious illness and death.
That was even spelled out in the Doherty report, and in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response to Mr McGowan, calling zero-Covid ‘absurd’ and ‘extreme’.
‘[Lockdown] cost the economy more and it doesn’t get the health effects because once you get to 80 per cent, you can treat it like the flu,’ he told the ABC.
‘We don’t go and shut down the whole country because of the flu every year. And so that is what the medical advice says.’
Australia has only had so few cases because, as an island, it shut its borders to the rest of the world and all outbreaks were through leaks from quarantine.
This can’t go on forever, and at 80 per cent it is supposed to end, or at least begin to end, for vaccinated travellers.
But as vaccines aren’t totally effective against transmission, there will be cases, and there will be outbreaks – likely numbering in the thousands.
What are we to do then? Vaccines are supposed to free us from masks, QR codes, social distancing, and having our brains poked every time we get the sniffles.
They are supposed to let us stop the obsessive counting of daily case numbers and instead focus on how many are seriously ill and dying.
So what if we have thousands, even tens of thousands, of cases a day if they translate to very few deaths and serious illnesses?
New Zealand travelers embrace at Sydney International Airport on April 19, the day the NZ travel bubble began. Australians have been largely trapped since March 2020
Australia averaged 744 flu deaths in 2017-19, with numbers that have long been accepted as normal.
So too do we need to accept these numbers, which in 2017 was more than our entire Covid death toll to date, and higher, for coronavirus if we are to get on with our lives.
The alternative is to be stuck with our borders closed, our faces covered, and the constant threat of our lives being derailed by snap gathering limits and lockdowns for years and years to come.
That is not a life worth living for the better part of this decade.
Ironically, Ms Berejiklian said it best today: ‘We can’t afford to live the way we are forever. We have to have a roadmap out.’
So stop shifting the goalposts and give us one that’s achievable and won’t leave us in Covid hell or purgatory forever instead of this zero-Covid-lite nonsense.
What are the four phases of opening up?
A. Vaccinate, prepare and pilot (from July 14)
Arrival caps cut in half to 3,035 a week; early, stringent and short lockdowns if outbreaks occur; trials of seven-day home quarantine for vaccinated arrivals in South Australia; medicare vaccination certificates available on apps like apple wallet
B. Post vaccination phase (when 70 per cent are jabbed, expected late this year)
Lockdowns less likely but possible’; vaccinated people face reduced restrictions; caps for unvaccinated arrivals increased; a larger cap for vaccinated arrivals with ‘reduced quarantine requirements’; capped entry for students and economic visa holders
C. Consolidation phase (when 80 per cent are jabbed, time not announced)
Lifting all restrictions for outbound travel for vaccinated travellers; no caps for vaccinated arrivals; increased caps for students and visa holders; more travel bubbles being set up with countries such as Singapore; booster shots rolled out
D. Final phase (percentage or time not announced)
Uncapped arrivals for vaccinated people without any quarantine and uncapped arrivals for unvaccinated people with testing before departure and on arrival