By PETER HACKNEY
After weeks of proclaiming “the health system remains strong”, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has announced new Covid-19 restrictions for the state, as the impact of the Omicron outbreak on the health system and NSW at large continues to grow.
Speaking at a press conference this afternoon with NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant and NSW Deputy Secretary Susan Pearce, the premier put a pause on elective surgery, announced mandatory Covid-19 vaccine boosters for some workers, and revealed dancing and singing in hospitality venues would be banned from tomorrow until at least 27 January.
The moves were announced as NSW smashed another unenviable Covid-19 record, posting 38,625 new cases in the 24 hours to 8pm last night – the largest one-day total since the pandemic began, by a margin of several thousand, with some health experts declaring the real number of infected people is much higher.
A further 11 Covid patients died yesterday: six men and five women, ranging in ages from their 50s to their 90s.
There are now 1,738 Covid-19 cases admitted to NSW hospitals, including 134 people in intensive care, 33 of whom require ventilation.
Perrottet defiant on “let it rip” strategy
Despite the exploding case numbers, Perrottet defended his anti-lockdown stance and his government’s Covid policies, which medical experts such as public health advocate and former Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Dr Kerryn Phelps have described as a “let it rip” strategy.
“Certain people would like to go into lockdown. That is not our approach,” the premier said, maintaining the state’s high vaccination rates precluded the need for further lockdowns.
To Wednesday, 5 January, 95.1 per cent of people in NSW aged 16 and over have received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, while 93.6 per cent have received at least two doses.
Of people aged 12 to 15, 81.4 per cent have received a first dose, while 78.1 per cent have received two doses.
The state will commence rolling out vaccines to children aged 5-11 next week.
“We have the best health system here in NSW in the country, if not around the world,” Perrottet said.
However, the pressures on the heath system are increasingly obvious, with the premier himself today announcing a temporary ban on elective surgery was needed to help ease the load.
“In order to assist the health system during this time … today we are announcing we will suspend elective, non-urgent surgery until mid-February,” he said.
“We did that during the Delta outbreak and the Alpha outbreak and we believe that is the right approach.”
Addressing the enormous pressure on PCR testing facilities, Dr Chant said positive rapid antigen test (RAT) results would now be treated the same as positive PCR results for symptomatic people, so as to avoid increasing the strain on PCR testing centres.
“In this current setting of such high case numbers, if you’ve got symptoms, and you’ve got a positive RAT test, then you’re a case,” said Dr Chant.
“We’re also saying that if you’re a household contact or you have had those high-risk exposures [and have a positive RAT test], then also you’re positive, you’re a case,” she said.
“If you have had no exposures to anyone, it’s really unusual that you have got a positive test, under those circumstances, you might get a PCR to validate it.”
She conceded RAT tests were currently hard to procure, however – a situation the government says will start to ease next week as the first of 50 million new RAT tests for NSW come online.
No singing, no dancing
Dr Chant further explained the rationale behind the singing and dancing ban, which applies to hospitality venues such as pubs, bars, nightclubs, restaurants and entertainment venues – although not weddings in such settings.
“When people are in those environments and dancing, you’re actually encountering and bringing together people from very different social networks,” Dr Chant explained.
“When you go and sit down with your five friends in a restaurant and you’re just sitting down, the only [other] people that you’re really coming into contact with are … hospitality staff wearing masks,” she said.
“But when you’re actually dancing on a dance floor, when you’re energised and singing in a group and moving around, then you actually risking exposing people that you would normally day-to-day not come into contact with.”
‘Fully vaxxed’ definition changes for some
In another big change announced today, the definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ now means three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine – two doses plus a booster – are now required for some frontline healthcare workers.
“There are a number of workers here in NSW that we have deemed to be in high-risk settings,” Mr Perrottet said.
“In those circumstances, we have mandated vaccinations. We will be moving to those mandates including a booster shot.
“So the health minister is working through that at the moment, but that announcement today will ensure that whether it’s our teachers, nurses, our front-line health and disability workers, where NSW Health has previously required mandatory vaccination for certain front-line staff – we will move to boosters being included as part of that fully vaccinated determination.”
Peter Hackney is the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Sentinel.
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