NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared a ‘national emergency’ to redirect Pfizer supplies from other states to COVID hotspots in Sydney but the outcome of a cabinet meeting with state and territory leaders on Friday did not result to allocations of the mRNA vaccine being diverted from other states to NSW.
In a further escalation of concern over the NSW Delta variant outbreak that is likely to see Sydney subject to hard lockdown restrictions for months, not weeks, the NSW premier fronted her daily COVID press conference ahead of the weekend to announce two things.
Firstly, Berejiklian said the NSW government believed the COVID-19 situation was flogging her state — that was now also impacting the states of Victoria and South Australia — had reached a state of ‘national emergency’.
Secondly, the NSW premier foreshadowed that a refocus of the national vaccine strategy was needed given the changing parameters of the community outbreak in the state.
NSW health was already adapting its own COVID-19 vaccine distribution strategy to get the uptake of more AstraZeneca and Pfizer shots in the South West Sydney hotspots most affected, Berejiklian said. But she also appealed to the federal government to send more Pfizer to meet demand for first doses for the younger population of South West Sydney
“There is no doubt that if we want to contain this virus, and stop it seeping out to other parts of Greater Sydney, stop it impacting our freedom and our economy, but also stop it spreading into other states, we need to have a discussion about refocusing the national vaccination strategy,” Berejiklian said.
“We will be taking to national cabinet, through the advice of the chief medical officer, our strong advice and recommendation that consideration be given to at least having more people have at least one dose of either vaccine, which reduces transmission.”
Hospitalisations for COVID-19 patients have grown in NSW, with a significantly larger group of those who have not been vaccinated being admitted.
Another record day for cases was announced on Sunday with the same number of locally-acquired COVID-19 cases in NSW recorded (141) as the number of people in hospital. Two more people died from the virus at the weekend, one woman in her 70s, and another in her 30s with no underlying health conditions.
— NSW Health (@NSWHealth) July 25, 2021
Shortly after Berejiklian’s announcement, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews called for Sydney to implement a ‘ring of steel’ around its COVID-19 outbreak hot spots. Andrews acknowledged that the situation in Sydney had likely escalated to ‘national emergency’ status but said if so, it was a national responsibility for more strict public health settings similar to Melbourne’s 2020 stage 4 lockdown.
“We need a ring of steel around Sydney so that this virus isn’t spreading into other parts of our nation,” Andrews said.
“Let’s focus on fixing what’s going on in Sydney, let’s focus on not spreading what’s going on in Sydney across the rest of our country. We will finish up with the whole country locked down if we don’t do this properly.”
According to reports by The Guardian, WA premier Mark McGowan asked Berejiklian during the virtual national cabinet meeting if the Sydney lockdown was serious given photographs of people gathered together at Bondi Beach. The ACT chief minister Andrew Barr is said to have asked the NSW premier if she had an effective ‘ring of steel’ barrier between Sydney and the rest of the nation.
Speculators suggest Berejiklian had spoken with the PM before the cabinet meeting and knew her request for more Pfizer vaccines would be declined at the meeting.
Hours before the meeting was held, and after Berejiklian made her call for vaccines through media channels, Lt Gen John Frewen told a senate select committee looking at Australia’s COVID-19 pandemic response that NSW had not made a formal request for more Pfizer.
The NSW premier told reporters on Monday that during the meeting she argued her ‘little heart out’ and would continue to ask for what was best for her state.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared before the media following Friday’s national cabinet meeting, indicating that NSW would not be getting any additional vaccines on top of the boosted allocations it had already received. But that position shifted with announcements on Friday that 50,000 doses from a federal stockpile would be made available to NSW, and on Sunday that 90,000 extra Pfizer vaccines would be delivered to NSW from this week (on top of the 147,720 Pfizer does to be delivered in the week beginning 5 July).
“There was the 50,000 extra [vaccine doses] last Friday on top of allocations, there was the 150,000 additional that was provided after the premier’s call to me on the 5th of July, on the 7th of July,” Morrison said.
“And the Pfizer allocations now ramping up by a further 90,000 on what they were getting earlier, and that is predominantly being distributed through the GP network, which has been doing the lion’s share of vaccinations all around the country.”
Buying time to turn the corner
On Sunday the federal government also made an announcement about the longer-term supply of Pfizer, declaring it had entered an agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech to secure 60 million doses of the mRNA vaccine in 2022, and 25 million doses in 2023.
Morrison restated a line he has been using since he finally apologised for the national vaccine strategy missing its marks last week, insisting that the vaccine rollout had ‘turned the corner’ and that this would lead Australia ‘back to normal’.
“We have secured an additional 85 million doses of Pfizer, which brings Australia’s total Pfizer doses to 125 million,” Morrison said.
“This is a significant shot in the arm for Australia’s vaccine supply. Every Australian will have access to a booster shot if it is needed.
“This will ensure individuals, families and communities have certainty about their continued protection against the evolving threat of COVID-19 over the next two years.”
A desire to return to normal was also made known by thousands of protestors across some of the nation’s largest and most restricted cities at the weekend, with un-masked people crowding into city centres and putting on a vocal, angry display about the states’ lockdown measures. Events turned violent in Sydney, with protestors clashing with police.
NSW Police has released vision of some of the wild scenes in the anti-lockdown protest in Sydney today. pic.twitter.com/QqpmmfBS0L
— Josh Bavas (@JoshBavas) July 24, 2021
The PM described the protests as selfish and self-defeating, while premier Berejiklian said she was disgusted by the event that only served to undermine the compliance and suffering of others.
“People understand there are frustrations with lockdowns, but that type of behaviour doesn’t help anybody, selfish behaviour doesn’t help anybody,” Morrison said.
“In a city under lockdown, to engage in that was reckless and it was selfish.”
Revised ATAGI advice urges more people to get vaccinated
The PM has also adopted a stronger message encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, in particular with the more readily available AstraZeneca shot, as new advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) for people in Greater Sydney was published on Saturday.
The advice recommends that all people aged 18 and over, including those under 60 ‘should strongly consider getting vaccinated with any available vaccine including COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca.
ATAGI’s advice was made on the basis of an increasing risk of COVID-19 in Greater Sydney and ‘ongoing constraints’ of Pfizer, alluding to a current shortage of supply of the mRNA vaccine.
Responding to a question from the press pack about Berejiklian’s national emergency escalation, Morrison said he had been treating the COVID-19 pandemic as such for the last two years.
“That hasn’t changed in the entirety of all the time we’ve been managing this pandemic — lives and livelihoods have been at stake right across the country this entire period,” Morrison said, going on to commend NSW for preventing the ‘exponential’ transmission growth of the COVID-19 Delta variant. This showed the state had the virus under control, the PM said.
“What I would note from the data, so early on in NSW they’ve prevented the exponential growth that we’ve seen in other countries, which has taken hold with Delta. They’ve been able to suppress that exponential rate of growth, which is very important.”