With more than a million tests done and 533 active cases, NSW will have a nervous two-week wait to see whether the border closure decision was made at the right time, even as one case from Melbourne was confirmed in Sydney on Friday afternoon.
While it was a measure that had been avoided “at all costs”, according to a Government MP, in the end, it became unavoidable.
‘The next prudent step’
Having watched what regional lockdowns without adequate border restrictions produced elsewhere in the world, the group of ministers knew NSW had to establish a safe line of defence before Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the Melbourne shutdown. They had seen how localised restrictions in northern Italy prompted a rapid spread of people, and coronavirus, south through the country.
“We’re lucky that we can look back and see how Europe managed this,” a government source says.
At the same time, outbreaks in Melbourne continued to grow. In the last week of June, the number of cases in Victoria started to rapidly increase from the mid-teens to almost 50 by June 28 with cases linked to several different outbreaks around the city.
Along the state border, communities were also worried as school holidays brought hordes of tourists into town – some of them potentially carrying the coronavirus.
Sue Harrison, a rural GP and board member of the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, works in Echuca on the Victorian side of the Murray River. She says she has been concerned about what holiday-makers may be bringing with them.
“We’re quite a popular holiday destination, but obviously as the numbers [of cases in Victoria] crept up over the last two weeks that’s been making everyone that much more anxious,” she says. “Our concern is people visiting from Melbourne who are perhaps more likely to have coronavirus infections and then perhaps leaving some [of that virus] behind.”
By the early days of July, Berejiklian was in constant discussions with NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant, Police Commissioner Mick Fuller and several senior ministers, workshopping what a potential hard border would look like.
Questions were being asked about how exactly it would be policed and the number of entries between the states. By Sunday evening, select government and departmental figures had been put on alert that a closure was imminent.
Regional MPs along the state’s southern border had already been raising concerns for weeks as the ski season began and the school holidays loomed.
Victoria’s community transmission was continuing to accelerate and several cases were being detected close to the border. Less than a week after reaching 50-odd daily cases, by July 4 the number of daily confirmed cases began surpassing 100. Six days later that figure would reach 288, the highest new daily total Australia had seen since the start of the pandemic.
“The Premier really did not want to go down this path unless things escalated … as things got worse in Melbourne the panic hit. The weekend came, there were more than 100 cases and by Sunday it looked inevitable,” a government MP says.
A coronavirus scare at a Balmain Woolworths, where a worker returning from hotel quarantine in Melbourne tested positive for COVID-19, “sharpened everyone’s awareness that mistakes couldn’t be afforded,” according to a government source.
Of particular concern to Chant was the increase in cases outside Melbourne’s 10 hotspot areas.
“It came to a situation where the next prudent step was to close the borders,” Dr Chant told the Herald.
Risk becomes ‘extremely high’
Chant picked up the phone just after 8am on Monday, alerting NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard that NSW’s best option would be to pull the pin on Victoria and establish a hard border. It is understood she spoke to Berejiklian soon after.
Later that morning, the two premiers were on the line with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Berejiklian outlined her case for NSW to cut itself off from its southern neighbour.
With community transmission escalating and a Melbourne lockdown likely just a day away, it was agreed NSW would control how it was policed. Health workers from across the country had already been diverted to help contact trace the ever-accelerating coronavirus cases, while NSW pathology labs were already processing Victorian tests.
Having spent weeks prosecuting the case for open borders, Berejiklian left it to Andrews to make the announcement later that morning. While some in NSW believe Berejiklian wanted Andrews to own the call by announcing it, a Victorian government source said the simple fact his press conference was scheduled first meant he took the lead.
Just after 10.45am, as Victoria reached a then-record daily high of 127 new cases and one death, Andrews announced the border would shut at 12.01 on Wednesday morning.
“We have – all of us – agreed that the best thing to do is to close the border,” he said.
Speaking later that day, Berejiklian said all Melburnians would also be banned from entering the state 24 hours before the state border closure kicked in.
“What is occurring in Victoria has not yet occurred anywhere else in Australia and it’s a new part of the pandemic, and as such it requires a new type of response,” she said.
It is understood, for his part, Morrison left much of the final decision-making to the two premiers and their health experts.
As late as June 30, he had blasted Queensland and Victoria for their border closures, but had more recently been at pains not to be perceived as criticising Andrews and his government’s handling of the emerging crisis.
Coalition MPs have been warned not to use the spot fire in Melbourne to fuel political attacks on Labor, however, there are lingering frustrations over Victoria’s initial apprehension to accept federal assistance.
“Saying no to the ADF was a huge f—-up,” a federal MP says, adding that many coalition colleagues weren’t happy with the way Andrews had handled the outbreak.
However, there remains a consensus that not much will be gained from slinging mud at a specific state as its neighbours nervously wait for their own potential outbreak.
On Tuesday, daily Victorian cases reached a new record of 191. Andrews announced the whole of metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire would re-enter lockdown, starting at the same time as the border closure.
“These are unsustainably high numbers of new cases,” Premier Andrews said. “We know we’re on the cusp of something very, very bad if we don’t take these steps today.”
People raced to cross the border before the lockdown came into effect, and by Wednesday morning NSW Police had processed 50,000 permits allowing travellers to enter NSW.
That morning, Berejiklian was stark in her warnings saying the probability of COVID-19 entering NSW from Victoria was “extremely high”.
“We can control things on our side of the border, we can’t control things on that side of the border,” she said.
Telling people in border towns not to travel, the Premier flagged those requests would likely become mandatory and the government would consider implementing a second border checkpoint north of Albury or tightening the permit system if the current controls were not enough.
“If we find that the bubble we have created on the border doesn’t work and we feel it’s too high-risk, we will definitely need to take further action,” she said. “Everybody should be on notice.”
She also pre-empted small changes that might be made to health orders around “some types of gatherings”, and said the government was considering making hotel quarantine mandatory for NSW residents returning from Victoria.
Some positive signs
But by Thursday, the government’s permit system was seemingly running smoothly, and despite an airport bungle where passengers from a Jetstar flight from Melbourne were not screened at the gate, and almost 50 passengers were able to leave the airport unchecked, the aviation systems were seen to be effective.
A government source adds that Wednesday’s “fire and brimstone” rhetoric from Berejiklian was in part aimed at slapping NSW back into the reality that it was on the precipice of another outbreak.
Through June, Berejiklian had noticed, and people had told her, that Sydney was easing back into complacency, that “people didn’t care anymore,” as the nation reported single-digit daily COVID-19 cases.
“The community had been jolted a bit and prepared,” they say of her Wednesday press conference.
While still warning the community to be on “high alert”, the Premier on Thursday said she was heartened by the hundreds of people in Albury, Merimbula and Tathra who had been getting tested and did not think NSW would have to consider going back into lockdown or further border measures.
“We’re monitoring the situation a number of times a day. And because of that high rate of continued testing and the very low rate of community transmission, the NSW government isn’t going to make any changes now,” she said.
“We just need to confirm in the next few weeks that the level of seeding hasn’t occurred, and so far the signs are positive, but we won’t know for sure for a couple of weeks.”
Infectious diseases expert Professor Mary-Louise McLaws says Berejiklian may have changed her rhetoric because Victorian authorities had been able to track the source of most of the cases and outbreaks.
“That would suggest then that they’ve put in place enough containment,” she says. “Plus the announcement now that they’re supporting public mask use in areas where the public can’t keep their distance, it may have alleviated the Premier’s anxiety about a wider-spread community outbreak in Melbourne.”
A second Sydney lockdown or a wake-up call?
While many within cabinet are adamant they’re all on the same page when it comes to the virus – backing the Premier and the health advice to the hilt – some may push back at the notion of a second lockdown if transmission begins to rise in Sydney.
After speaking with Hazzard in early July, the Treasurer Dominic Perrottet agreed that the best course of action was to deal with a border closure, rather than the catastrophic health and economic consequences of a potential second wave in Sydney.
However, it is understood Perrottet is adamant that Sydney should not return to lockdown, having spent more than $2 billion bolstering the state’s health sector to withstand more coronavirus cases.
Nevertheless on Friday, with 288 cases confirmed in Victoria and two “troubling” cases of community transmission detected in NSW, including one man who had driven his caravan from Melbourne to a caravan park in the Sutherland Shire tested positive, Hazzard said “everything is on the table” when it came to stopping the spread of COVID-19.
“There are a lot of things under active consideration at this time,” Hazzard said, while declining to outline what options were being considered.
Asked whether Sydney was gearing up for the possibility of a second lockdown, a government MP said: “We’re not floating along, it’s not ‘let’s wait and see,’ there is a proactive approach and strategy in place,” they say.
Dr Harrison says the border lockdown and particularly the hard lockdown of greater Melbourne is a relief. While Echuca’s healthcare workers are well trained, the worry is how the local hospital would cope with a large number of cases.
“It was always going to be a risk in the school holidays, with the number of visitors we have to the area,” she says.
With community complacency “creeping in”, on Thursday Chant asked NSW residents to be extra vigilant “over this next two-to-four week period”.
“Now is not the time to second guess whether you’ve got COVID-symptoms, now is the time to come forward and get tested,” she said. “This will be the single most critical step in us detecting chains of transmission in the community as early as possible.”
Epidemiologist McLaws says to boost our chances of avoiding a Melbourne scenario, people needed to adhere to social distancing and hygiene measures while NSW Health should work to eliminate the virus from the state.
“The whole of Melbourne has been a wake-up call for Sydney,” she says. “It’s distressing for those that are under restrictions, but it’s also distressing for people in Sydney to see this,” she says.
“This is a wake-up call for all of us to be mindful that our behaviour impacts on others.”
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Tom Rabe is Transport Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.
Rachel Clun is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.