Sydney residents have been warned that an outbreak of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant will get worse before it gets better as the state government rushes to finalise a significant rescue package for businesses to be unveiled as early as Monday.
COVID-19 cases are forecast to surge in the coming days amid warnings from the state’s chief health officer that the second week of lockdown will be crucial to determining whether stay-at-home orders will have to be extended or can be relaxed.
The outbreak of the Delta variant that began in Bondi on June 16 has grown to 112 cases, after 30 new locally acquired cases were reported on Sunday. Eleven of the latest cases were already in isolation, and most are linked to known sources, but several people were in the community while infectious.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned that case numbers were likely to increase in coming days as close contacts and household members test positive.
“Given how contagious this strain of the virus is, we do anticipate that in the next few days, case numbers are likely to increase even beyond what we have seen [on Sunday],” she said.
She defended her government’s decision to wait until Saturday to extend the lockdown to greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Central Coast, Shellharbour, and Wollongong in a bid to contain the spread. “I do not regret a single decision we have taken because it has been based on health advice,” she said.
With analysts predicting that the strict stay-at-home orders will cost the economy $1 billion a week, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet is set to announce as early as Monday a rescue package for businesses. It comes less than a week after he unveiled the NSW budget and declared the state was “back on track”.
The latest case numbers equal the worst single day of the Avalon outbreak last summer – 30 local cases on December 19 – which resulted in a three-week lockdown of parts of the northern beaches.
NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said a two-week lockdown “may be sufficient”, provided high testing numbers were maintained and “we all take this very seriously”.
But Dr Chant said she would want all community-transmitted cases and their close contacts to be in isolation by the second week of the lockdown in order to avoid it needing to be extended.
Of the 112 cases since June 16, 110 can be linked to a limousine driver who transferred FedEx aircrew, and two remain under investigation. The limo driver has so far been identified as the most likely patient zero in the Bondi cluster outbreak.
All 30 new cases recorded in the 24 hours to 8pm on Saturday have been linked to the Bondi cluster: 11 were in isolation throughout their infectious period and three were in isolation for part of it.
Ten of the new cases have been linked to the Great Ocean Foods seafood wholesaler in Marrickville, taking the total number of cases from those premises to 11. One case from the Great Ocean Foods outbreak was linked to a Sydney-based Virgin Australia flight attendant who has tested positive after flying on five flights between east-coast cities while potentially infectious.
At present, NSW Health is treating 79 COVID-19 patients, one of whom is in intensive care. Testing numbers reached more than 50,000, and testing is expected to surpass the rates over Christmas in response to the Avalon cluster.
While the government praised the public’s response, NSW police issued 15 penalty infringement notices, including to an eastern suburbs family who defied stay-at-home orders to travel to the Hunter Valley for a sporting event.
More than 50 Sydneysiders – including a family of four adults and two children – were also ordered to return home from Canberra after ACT police discovered many guests of a hotel were staying there in breach of public health directions.
With case numbers set to increase over coming days, the state opposition has called on the government to commit to a grants package for affected small businesses as well as supporting casual workers ineligible for other assistance.
Mayors have asked the government to introduce a small business hardship grant similar to that in December during the northern beaches lockdown. That program provided one-off payments of $3000 or $5000.
Damian Kelly, acting executive director of Business Sydney, said businesses in the CBD would be “dramatically impacted” by the two-week lockdown given that they had already suffered significantly since the pandemic began some 16 months ago. “They have done it particularly tough during the pandemic,” he said.
AMP Capital senior economist Shane Oliver has estimated that a two-week lockdown of greater Sydney’s population will cost the economy about $2 billion.
While the lockdown will be a major hit to businesses in greater Sydney, Dr Oliver said much of the lost economic activity would hopefully be quickly recouped after restrictions were lifted.
The federal government has already announced that it will make $500 Commonwealth disaster recovery payments available to Sydney workers affected by the lockdown from July 1.