As Covid cases soar, leaked email contradicts Perrottet claim that “health system remains strong”

St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney. Photo: lordsurgery.com.

By PETER HACKNEY

As NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet continues to claim that the NSW health system can cope with soaring Covid-19 cases, a leaked email from a major Sydney hospital has suggested otherwise.

This morning, on the day NSW woke up to news of an astonishing daily record of 21,151 Covid cases in the 24 hours to 8pm last night, the premier claimed: “We’ve seen a significant increase in case numbers, but what is pleasing is that our health system remains strong.”

However, a leaked email – first obtained by the ABC – refutes that, with St Vincent’s Hospital management revealing the facility is in an “extremely vulnerable” position, putting patient care at risk.

The email, sent to hospital staff by St Vincent’s Hospital executive director Kevin Luong yesterday, said: “We are continuing to experience critical staff shortages across the organisation, particularly in nursing.

“Whilst we are trying our best to work around this, we are beginning to run out of options to maintain safe nursing staffing levels.”

Dr Luong continued: “Additionally there is significant concern that there will be a surge in ED [emergency department] activity during the next few days, which may leave us extremely vulnerable and potentially compromise patient care.”

He wrote that the hospital would consider other ways to “alleviate the overall demand on the hospital”, suggesting that discharging patients was one means to achieve this.

“I am requesting that all senior medical staff urgently review their current inpatients, liaise with their teams, and where possible and safe, organise to discharge your patients as soon as possible,” said Dr Luong.

When asked about the email, Mr Perrottet said there would be “challenges in any health system, not just around the country but around the world”.

The premier defended the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions ahead of the steep rise in cases.

On Wednesday, the premier announced a loosening of restrictions pertaining to close contacts and isolation. Under the new system, only a “small number” of people, such as healthcare workers, will be ordered into self-isolation after close contact with someone who has tested positive to Covid.

Yesterday, following a meeting arranged by Mr Perrottet’s federal Liberal Party counterpart, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, it was announced that Covid-19 cases would need a rapid antigen test on day six if they were asymptomatic before leaving isolation.

Today, less than 24 hours after that requirement was announced, the day six testing rule was scrapped.

“Following further consultation with the chief medical officer and chief health officers, leaders have also agreed to remove the requirement for day six rapid antigen tests for confirmed cases in isolation,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s office said.

“If confirmed cases remain symptomatic, they should remain in isolation.

“Anyone with symptoms will continue to seek a PCR test.”

National cabinet also agreed yesterday to narrow the definition of a close contact to someone who has been in a household setting for more than four hours with a confirmed infection.

Earlier, on 15 December, Mr Perrottet announced masks would no longer be required in indoor public spaces in NSW.

However, after cases surged, the premier rescinded the decision just eight days later, once again bringing in a mask mandate for indoor public settings.

Today, the NSW Government announced it would scrap mandatory QR code check-ins by the end of January.

The recent state and federal machinations around Covid-19 have drawn criticism from various quarters, including OzSAGE, the multi-disciplinary network of Australian health and other experts formed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a media statement issued yesterday, OzSAGE said dismantling health resources and infrastructure was not a solution to the pandemic.

Calling the NSW and federal government approaches “a fatalistic approach that will be fatal for some people”, the organisation said: “The ‘let it rip’ strategy and defeatist narrative that ‘we are all going to get it’ ignores the stark lived reality of the vulnerable of our society.

“Despite three doses of vaccine, some patients with cancer and other immunosuppressed people, have substantially reduced protection against Omicron. Similarly, people with co-existing health conditions (estimated to be 50 per cent of the adult population) are at increased risk of illness.”

OzSAGE said while the Omicron variant was less severe than the Delta strain, it was similar in severity to the initial iteration of Covid-19.

“Preliminary data suggest that compared to the Delta variant, Omicron infections are 40-45 per cent less likely to result in hospitalisation. However, the Delta variant was significantly more virulent than the original strain of the virus, being at least twice as likely to lead to hospitalisation or death. This means that the Omicron variant is at least as virulent as the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, with far greater vaccine escape, and cannot be described as mild.”

Sharing the OzSAGE statement on social media, medical practitioner, public health advocate and former Australian Medical Association president Dr Kerryn Phelps AM wrote: “We are being led down a dangerous path by politicians with little regard for public health.”

Peter Hackney is the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Sentinel.