Thursday’s New South Wales press conference revealed just how different a Perrottet government will be.
Flanked by his economic ministers at the Homebush Vaccination Hub, the new premier, Dominic Perrottet, announced significant pro-business tweaks to the rules at both 70% vaccination rate and at 80%.
It signalled a sharp change, where the elected politicians will make the call and the health advice will not carry the day over economic considerations.
The health minister, Brad Hazzard, had asked not to speak, but did. The chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, a fixture at press conferences with the former premier Gladys Berejiklian, wasn’t there at all. So we do not truly know what she thinks.
But insiders say that health officials signed off on the latest changes at what Perrottet said was a marathon four-hour meeting of crisis cabinet on Wednesday night, now to be known as the “economic recovery committee”.
Hazzard, who couldn’t resist speaking, said he supported them.
“Anybody who wants to impute that it wasn’t well-considered or wasn’t given full support is just playing a silly media game,” he said testily.
As a senior member of cabinet, he’s no shrinking violet and he’s unlikely to have been bossed around by a newly minted 39-year-old premier.
But one does wonder whether the sheer exhaustion of a four-month lockdown means there is a greater willingness to go with Perrottet’s unashamedly pro-business approach.
“We know that this is not just a health crisis, it’s an economic crisis too, and New South Wales has been incredibly successful,” he said, pointing to the bounce-back in jobs before this current lockdown.
Perrottet talked about getting back “on track”, “staying calm” and getting people back to work. There wasn’t a word about an assessment of the NSW health system’s ability to cope or whether vulnerable communities were sufficiently protected.
“I think where we have landed … provides the most certainty to industry and business community,” he said.
When the government announced its plans to relax restrictions at 70%, Chant declined to say she was happy with the plan but conceded it was “cautious”. Prof Mark Stoove, the head of public health at the Burnet Institute, told the ABC that his general advice was to be “extremely cautious” in lifting restrictions at 70%.
Now, as NSW reaches that milestone, the Perrottet government has doubled the number of people who can visit a home from five to 10, increased the number of people who can go to a funeral to 100 and increased outdoor gatherings to 30.
Indoor pools will also reopen.
Until now transmission between households has been the major concern for epidemiologists.
More changes have been made at 80%, expected around 21 October. These include allowing outdoor events to move from 500 to 3,000, and for large venues to seek exemptions from this limit if they have Covid-safe plans. That means stadiums and racetracks could have large crowds.
Significantly, Perrottet has said mask-wearing will not be required in offices at the 80% vaccination mark, even though the World Health Organisation advice is they should be worn in indoor settings where possible if the virus is circulating.
Berejiklian’s plan had been to continue to have people working from home where possible and it’s not clear whether Perrottet has dumped this advice. But mask-wearing was seen as a significant disincentive to getting people back to the office.
The freedoms are restricted to vaccinated people.
But with just a few days to go before pubs and restaurants open with social distancing and sit-down drinking, there’s no sign of a promised upgraded QR system that would also indicate vaccination status to the poor person who will be checking people into a venue. Nor is there any word from NSW police on how it’s going to be enforced.
The only advice from the government is to carry a digital or physical version of your vaccination certificates.
The good news for Perrottet is that case numbers in NSW are falling more than expected – they are now below 600 a day – and for the time being, the expected worst-case scenarios in intensive care wards, released a month ago by the health department, have not been realised.
That gives some cushioning.
Perrottet says the rule changes are “modest”. But he also did not release any modelling to show what impact they will have, particularly in the period between 70% vaccination rate and 80%.
“There’s a quiet confidence at the moment that, yes, we may well see some increases, but we’re hopeful that those increases won’t be substantial,” Perrottet said in response to a question on modelling.
Confidence is one thing. Facts and modelling are another. Several epidemiologists expressed some concerns about the “tweaks” and hastening re-opening
University of NSW epidemiologist Prof Mary-Louise McLaws, said she was concerned about the lower vaccination rates among under-40s.
“Under 40 years of age represent the majority of cases, and therefore the majority of transmission. In New South Wales, it’s 69%. In Victoria, it’s about 73%. That’s enormous. And that’s the group that needs to reach 80%,” she said.
The Teachers Federation is outraged about the lack of consultation of the bring-forward of the return to schools, especially as teachers must be vaccinated to return to the classroom and little progress has been made on improving ventilation.
Making an enemy of the teachers union in the first week is an interesting move.
Perrottet is enjoying the benefit of Berejiklian’s current cautious approach. The real test will come if there is a significant uptick in NSW cases, as is entirely possible with significant portions of the population, especially younger people, still unvaccinated.