The New South Wales chief health officer has repeatedly ducked questions on whether she urged the government to introduce a lockdown during a 10-day window between the first community case of Delta in Sydney and stay-at-home orders being issued on 25 June.
Dr Kerry Chant appeared before a NSW parliamentary committee alongside the state’s health minister, Brad Hazzard, on Tuesday afternoon.
She said it was too premature to discuss easing lockdown restrictions despite the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, indicating she would consider easing some stay-at-home orders once vaccination rates reached 50%.
Chant told the hearing her first written recommendation to the NSW crisis cabinet to lock down parts of greater Sydney came “on the date where the lockdown was initiated” – but she did not directly address questions about whether verbal recommendations were made before that date.
Chant instead told the committee she had “a range of discussions” with Hazzard in the lead up to the formal lockdown recommendation.
The chief health officer admitted that “with the benefit of hindsight” a formal recommendation to enter lockdown could have been made sooner, but she said health officials initially believed the West Hoxton birthday party which seeded the outbreak in south-west Sydney had been “well contained”.
That belief turned out to be mistaken: on 29 June, more than a week after cases linked to the party were discovered, NSW Health announced that about 10 more people than initially believed had been at the event.
“Everyone was looking at the data very closely and I think the key issue was the issue around the seeding event [in West Hoxton] and whether it was contained or not,” Chant said. “With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear to see there was a greater risk of a seeding event in south-west Sydney than was appreciated at the time.”
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As case numbers in NSW continue to grow in the seventh week of the city’s lockdown, the government has increasingly tied a return to some level of normality to a rising vaccination rate.
At the beginning of August, Berejiklian told reporters that “once you get to 50% vaccination, 60%, 70% it obviously triggers more freedoms.” The premier has indicated that if that benchmark was reached by the end of the month, some restrictions could be eased.
But questioned on the number of cases and deaths likely if restrictions were eased at 50% vaccination, Chant said she believed Berejiklian was trying to instil “a sense of hope in the community” and she did not believe the state was ready to countenance an easing of restrictions.
“I have not provided specific advice about any restrictions that I would be prepared to ease. It is too premature,” she said.
The role of the NSW crisis cabinet has come under increased scrutiny, with reports some senior ministers, including the treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, had pushed back against lockdown restrictions or extensions.
During a series of testy exchanges, Hazzard repeatedly refused to allow the chief health officer to answer questions, complained about the length of the hearing and said the NSW government “won’t be providing any documents” on her advice.
“We’re not going to release crisis cabinet documents or cabinet documents to you,” he told Greens MP Cate Faehrmann. “If you want to be part of the government, Cate, join the government.”
Later, the committee heard from a number of public health experts including Tony Blakely, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Melbourne.
He told the committee that while he had “initially had sympathy” for the proposal to ease some restrictions at a 50% vaccination rate, he now believed that was “too optimistic”.
“Vaccination coverage does help bend the curve but not as much as we would like because of the delays [in the rollout],” he said. “The maintenance of as strong a lockdown as society can tolerate is going to help bend this curve the most and if it is relaxed too early the number of hospitalisations and deaths could be quite something.”