Mournful strains as Delta variant takes grip in south-west Sydney

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Leaning in the doorway of his sweets and pastry shop a short walk from Fairfield station, 54-year-old Jan Israel surveyed the passing foot traffic on Thursday and declared the lockdown “a joke”.

The small-business owner has worked seven days a week since buying his brother-in-law out and going solo last year. But he said he was willing to close up and wear the financial pain if it meant helping pull Sydney back from the brink of a prolonged COVID-19 outbreak.

“People are still visiting each other and people are still on the street,” the Iraqi-born shop-owner told the Herald, hours after Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant had issued their impassioned pleas to Sydneysiders to only leave home for the absolute necessities.

Small-business owner Jan Israel took his own advice and shut up shop.

Small-business owner Jan Israel took his own advice and shut up shop.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“Maybe only 10 per cent of these people on the street here are essential [going out] and the rest are not,” he added. “I understand that some people get stressed about staying home and they are not used to it, but if they want to be safe they have to.” Supermarkets were essential, he said, but “coffee is not, takeaway food from restaurants is not. You can make that at home”.

By Friday morning he had taken his own advice and shut up shop.

For all the government’s complaints about citizens not “doing the right thing” it was clear by week’s end that giving so many retail outlets the option of staying open has sent a confusing message to the NSW public.

Even with tightened restrictions on movement announced on Friday morning, it was not apparent how a ban on “browsing”, and insisting that only one person leave the home to do household shopping, was going to be enforced.

People wait for buses at Fairfield during Sydney’s COVID-19 lockdown.

People wait for buses at Fairfield during Sydney’s COVID-19 lockdown. Credit:Kate Geraghty

Friday’s numbers – a new high of 44 cases, of which 27 had been out and about in the community while infectious – have stunned the government which once prided itself on being the country’s most lockdown-resistant.

Just over a year ago Melbourne began its descent into a gruelling three-month winter hibernation. Now Sydney sits on the brink of its own precipice, with the highly transmissible Delta variant threatening to overwhelm the state’s defences.

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Gone is any hubris that might have percolated through the government corridors in Macquarie Street. In its place is trepidation, a recognition that the enemy has vastly increased its ability to skip several steps ahead of the state’s much-celebrated contact tracers.

“Please do not think that the New South Wales government thinks we can live with this when our vaccination rate is only at 9 per cent,” Berejiklian warned on Friday, quashing reports that some of her ministers were thinking it might be possible to abandon the zero transmission strategy if case numbers proved stubbornly resistant to suppression.

“No country on the planet can live with the Delta variant when our vaccination rates are so low.” Using the strongest language she’s deployed to date, she said that to do otherwise would risk seeing “thousands and thousands of hospitalisations and deaths”.

It’s now hard to recall that as recently as June 22, state Treasurer Dominic Perrottet had walked jubilantly into the bustling Legislative Assembly and declared “NSW is back”, touting a jobs resurgence and a predicted surplus by 2024-25.

“There was a jovial atmosphere that had not been in the Parliament since the pandemic had begun,” recalls one forlorn government member of budget day. “It was almost like a dream, it was there – and then it was taken away.”

“It’s been a shock, it’s come hard and it’s come fast,” Perrottet said.

Friday’s numbers lent a new stridency to Berejiklian’s messaging about the need for people to stay home, unless they “absolutely” had no alternative, and for them to accept no one outside their household into their home, unless there was an equally pressing need for that person to be there.

The Premier was determined to put paid to several days of headlines suggesting division within the state crisis cabinet about how long the lockdown should extend and whether it might – as Health Minister Brad Hazzard speculated on Wednesday morning – be an option to “accept that the virus has a life which will continue in the community” if people did not curtail the spread.

Hazzard quickly walked that back the next day, but not before Deputy Premier John Barilaro had endorsed the remark.

Perrottet won’t discuss the debate which took place inside the state crisis cabinet earlier in the week as he, Berejiklian, Barilaro, Hazzard, Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello and the minister responsible for overseeing hotel quarantine, Stuart Ayres, sweated over whether to extend the fortnight’s lockdown for at least another week.

Senior government sources now portray that debate as more akin to “war-gaming” than a split, though the pro-business Perrottet had been widely reported as initially opposing the lockdown’s extension.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian at Friday’s update on the COVID-19 situation in NSW.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian at Friday’s update on the COVID-19 situation in NSW.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Dominello, weighing in on Friday, said: “In my view there will be a live debate as to when we can live with the virus but that is contingent squarely on much higher vaccination rates.”

From the other side of the continent, Perth-based AMA president Omar Khorshid added his voice to warnings that “we are going to see a disaster” if NSW opened up before eliminating the virus while vaccination rates were still so low.

Chant had been desperately hoping that case numbers would be declining, and chains of transmission stamped out by now. Instead health authorities are bracing for a further increase in cases in the coming days. “I am incredibly concerned,” Chant said on Friday, highlighting the risk posed by households continuing to mingle. “When we find a case in a family, we find that everyone in that household [already] has the disease.”

The numbers of very ill are also creeping up, with nearly 10 per cent of those diagnosed with the Delta variant requiring hospitalisation. And where contact tracers were chasing down 7000 “close contacts” of cases on Thursday, by Friday that number had swollen to 14,000.

Berejiklian knows from her own migrant background how deeply ingrained the culture of regular contact with extended family is in many ethnic communities. She referenced this when urging people to recognise this week that “immediate family means whose you live with, it does not mean extended family or friends”.

People walk along the near empty streets of Fairfield during lockdown.

People walk along the near empty streets of Fairfield during lockdown.Credit:Kate Geraghty

The government has drawn flak for singling out three local government areas in south-west Sydney – Liverpool, Fairfield and Canterbury-Bankstown – as the latest hotspot of greatest concern.

This was, after all, an outbreak which began in the city’s east, with a Bondi limousine driver ferrying international air crew under a gaping regulatory loophole which did not require him to wear a mask or be vaccinated.

But Berejiklian said she was making no apologies for being direct. “Imagine going home … and giving the virus to your partner, to all of your children and then if you happen to go and visit your cousins, to all of that family, and that is what we are seeing, unfortunately … that is what we are seeing.”

NSW police launched a high-visibility mission into south-west Sydney on Friday morning, with Assistant Commissioner Tony Cooke warning that “where we do not get compliance, we will enforce”.

City of Canterbury-Bankstown mayor Khal Asfour said he was not against police looking for those flouting health regulations. But he added, “what I, and indeed my community, object to is the language and tough talk. They say we are all in this together, but my community…

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