Five weeks into the greater Sydney lockdown, the rules are eye-glazingly complicated

·5-min read

Suddenly Sydneysiders are paying attention to what local government area we live in.

LGAs will now determine whether we can go outdoors without a mask and how far we can stray from our homes to shop or exercise.

Your LGA now determines whether, as a tradie, you can go to work on a construction site, or not. In some areas, there is a requirement for a Covid test every three days to be able to leave.

As the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has battled to bring the latest Delta outbreak under control, she has progressively tweaked the rules while saying she wants to “let us live as freely as possible”.

Related: NSW Covid update: army to help enforce Sydney lockdown as state reports record 239 local cases

The result after five weeks of lockdown is an eye-glazingly complicated and shifting set of instructions – which any marketer would tell you is a hard sell.

And if people are confused, then compliance will be harder to achieve, with the result that the lockdown will be longer and more agonising.

It’s easy to see why the Berejiklian government thinks zoning the city with stricter rules for eight LGAs is a politically good idea.

Three-quarters of the latest cases were in eight LGAs: Blacktown, Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland, Campbelltown, Fairfield, Georges River, Liverpool and Parramatta.

The premier is already experiencing a backlash from Central Coast and Wollongong residents given they have had no or few Covid exposures. It’s easy to understand why she doesn’t want to make the entire city of Sydney wear masks as soon as they leave home – especially as she has publicly poo-pooed their use outdoors.

But as the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, discovered in 2020, postcode-specific lockdowns don’t work.

Part of the difficulty is explaining differing messages, especially when the communities being subjected to the harsher and complex rules are ethnically diverse with multiple languages spoken.

Berejiklian and the NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, said the rules were necessary because of the poor levels of compliance with mask-wearing in these areas with Covid clusters. But how easy will it be to communicate a new set of rules?

And how many police – and army troops – will be needed to enforce them?

How will those communities react when they continue to see TV footage of thousands at Bondi walking without masks?

The real problem remains the original problem: people are still moving around too much especially in the west and south-west of Sydney.

This is because, as chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant has noted, the people living in the hotspots of Sydney are the same people who provide the essential services to the city. They are the cashiers, the shelf stackers, the shopkeepers, the Uber drivers, the delivery guys, the aged care workers and the cleaners.

As Chant keeps saying, the issue is people catching it in their workplaces, taking it home to multigenerational families and infecting the whole family – whose members then go out into the community to work and shop.

Related: Will Sydney’s Covid lockdown work and how different are restrictions to Melbourne’s ‘ring of steel’?

They wait too long to go get tested, then spread it further.

University of Sydney modelling from the Centre for Complex Systems, released on Thursday, suggests the problem is “Sydney’s current level of social distancing is still inadequate for outbreak control”.

“While in the last fortnight social distancing compliance appears to have increased to 60% from 40%, this level is still inadequate for the control of the Delta outbreak,” says Prof Mikhail Prokopenko from the engineering faculty.

“To adequately suppress the outbreak, 70-80% of residents in greater Sydney must comply with social distancing, however, we are just not seeing those numbers yet.”

By that, the researchers mean everyone must reduce their interactions to 10% of pre-Covid levels.

They also say that “crucially, 80% social distancing also means that many services currently deemed essential would need to be included under the lockdown restrictions”.

Instead, NSW is pushing the other way. Construction resumes in most parts of the city on Saturday, except for the eight LGAs. Workers from those LGAs must not work on sites outside these areas either – good luck policing that one.

Although the premier insists she is being guided by health advice, this is an economic decision. The NSW treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, said even the more limited activity would add $550m to the state economy each week.

But it certainly won’t help with reducing mobility in the city or the simplicity of the message.

Perhaps the government efforts should be directed to helping employers screen essential workers with rapid antigen testing or making shopping interactions more contactless by using click and collect and home delivery.

Sad as it might be, perhaps coffee shops need to close for a few weeks to avoid crowds on pavements.

Yes, there is an economic cost, but the economic and human cost of a failed lockdown and waiting until we’re all vaccinated – by Christmas maybe – is just as high.

It will be fascinating to see how the police operation goes on the weekend. Combined with the different rules for different parts of the city, it has the potential to fuel divisions and resentments at a time when that is exactly what we don’t need.

Instead, we need community leaders helping to sell a common purpose: to get as many vaccinated as possible, and get us out of lockdown before Christmas.

And we also need some clarity from our leaders. We need a simpler message on both lockdowns and vaccines and practical steps to achieve them.


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