Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September 2020

At first glance, it seems obvious that NSW has managed the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic better than Victoria. New daily case numbers in NSW are low. Life is closer to pre-pandemic normal in NSW, with fewer restrictions. And of course NSW’s second wave can be traced to Victoria’s much bigger problems.

Contact tracing seems better organised in NSW. It is more transparent than Victoria about how it is performing on the speed of contact tracing, for example. Transparent reporting helps give people confidence that the outbreak is being managed and that systems are in place to monitor what is happening and to intervene where necessary.

People in NSW at the moment are likely to look with pity upon those of us who live in Melbourne. Victoria still has much higher daily case numbers, and we Victorians still have to live down the record of the disastrous mismanagement of hotel quarantine that led to Victoria’s second wave.

So, should the NSW government and public sit smugly on their hands, safe in the knowledge there is nothing to learn from Victoria? The answer is a definite no.

On Sunday, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews released a “roadmap out of lockdown”. This reaffirmed the national cabinet’s goal of zero community transmissions, and announced the continuation of restrictions as a key part of how to get there. Sure, NSW and Victoria are starting from different places, but they have both signed up to the same national cabinet decisions, so they should share the same end goal.

As good as the situation in NSW is, it could be better. NSW, like Victoria, should explicitly sign up to the “zero cases” goal, and it should release a detailed plan to get there.

NSW is now about where Victoria wants to be after the third of its five steps out of the pandemic – with the fourth step scheduled to be taken when there are no new cases for a fortnight, and the fifth when there are no active cases in the community.

The big difference between Victoria and NSW now is that one state has a plan to get to zero, and one doesn’t. Premier Gladys Berejiklian is asking the good citizens of NSW to please do the right thing. It’s a plea, not a plan. The state that introduced night curfews to curb drunken behaviour is well behind Victoria on restrictions to fight a pandemic.

Don’t get me wrong: NSW does not need the level of restrictions Victoria has, but it should consider evidence-based restrictions to take that last, difficult step from a handful of new daily cases to zero.

For example, the evidence now shows that wearing masks reduces transmissions. Masks should be mandated in NSW, indoors and on public transport. People should be required to work from home if possible, but workplaces should be allowed to stay open with COVID-safe plans. Cafes and restaurants should remain open, but with appropriate and enforced social-distancing rules. The number of people at outdoor gatherings should be capped, and there should be a lower cap on the number of people at indoor gatherings.

NSW has been lucky. The virus is bubbling along at low levels, and contact tracing has worked well so far. But NSW is only one “super spreader” event away from a big outbreak that may necessitate harsh, Victorian-style restrictions.

Take it from a Melburnian: NSW should learn one lesson from Victoria, and that is to take action now to reduce the chance of spread by having proportionate restrictions designed to get to zero.

Photo: FiledIMAGE –