How the Sydney cluster grew—and what it could mean for New Zealand

Opinion: The speed at which Sydney’s new Covid-19 outbreak has spread should be a lesson in the dangers of complacency, says Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles.

With news of a new strain of the Covid-19 virus spreading in the UK, it looks like Australia’s Christmas plans are also up in the air with a new cluster of cases in Sydney. It’s a good reminder to us here in New Zealand that we mustn’t get complacent over the holiday season.

On Tuesday December 15, Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield held a media stand-up to talk about the government’s Covid summer resurgence plan. The plan lays out how they will manage any community cases that emerge in New Zealand over our summer holiday season.

It was a clear call for us all to be washing our hands, using the Covid Tracer app, staying home and getting tested if we experience any symptoms, and having a backup plan for homes and pets in case we move up the alert levels and can’t get home straight away.
The next day, Wednesday December 16, New South Wales Health reported a community case of Covid-19 in a Sydney-based van driver who transports air crew from the airport to their hotels. Urgent genome sequencing was underway to determine if transmission had happened from the air crew. Given the driver’s job that seemed likely. New South Wales Health also announced he’d been to a sporting event while infectious and advised people who were also at the event to get tested.

Then later that day, another announcement by New South Wales Health. Two more people in Sydney had tested positive for Covid-19. They lived in the Northern Beaches area and had no known links to other cases. The couple were in their 60s and 70s, close contacts of each other, and had visited quite a few places while infectious, including cafes, shops, and the Avalon bowling club. Everyone in the Northern Beaches area was told to be on the lookout for symptoms.

Thursday December 17. Fifteen new community cases in the Northern Beaches area and more venues announced as places people may have been exposed. Officials ask those living in the Northern Beaches to stay home if they can and avoid visiting friends or family in aged care facilities or hospitals, and to avoid high-risk venues such as clubs, restaurants, places or worships, and gyms. They also ask people to avoid unnecessary travel outside of or to the Northern Beaches area.

Friday December 18. Ten new community cases announced as well as another in a New South Wales resident diagnosed in Queensland but now in self-isolation in the Northern Beaches area. New South Wales Health also announce that genome sequencing shows this new cluster isn’t related to the van driver or to any other recent clusters in Australia.

A new cluster and Sydney under restrictions

In the space of three days, Sydney went from zero community cases of Covid-19 to 28. Twenty-six of them were linked to the Avalon bowling club and/or the Avalon Returned Services League (RSL). Three days later the Avalon cluster was up to 83 cases. I’ve not seen any reports of how the cluster is thought to have started, but it just shows how fast cases can grow. And who knows how big it’ll get? Of the people with Covid-19, there is a musician who travelled extensively and played at multiple venues, an aged care worker, and a very busy and sociable couple in their 60s and 70s who didn’t self-isolate while waiting for their test results.

For now, the Northern Beaches area remains under stay-at-home orders, and some restrictions have been placed on people living in Greater Sydney. That means household gatherings are limited to 10 visitors, there’s a cap of 300 people for hospitality venues and places of worship, and restrictions on dancefloors and singing indoors. Those restrictions will be reviewed before Christmas but its hard to see how they could be eased by then.

The rest of Australia has also acted, with some states declaring Greater Sydney a hot zone and stopping all travel from the area while others require new arrivals to quarantine for 14 days. That’s led to a mad rush for people to get out of New South Wales before the restrictions came into force. And just a few days out from starting, this year’s Sydney to Hobart yacht race has been cancelled – the first time in its 76-year history.

What does the Sydney cluster mean for a Trans-Tasman travel bubble?
I’m not sure, to be honest.

It’s a valuable reminder that a community outbreak can happen at any time. It’s also another opportunity to seriously think through what an appropriate response would be and how we would minimise an outbreak spreading from one side of the Tasman to the other.
The fact that our contact tracing apps aren’t compatible is a pain, though not a deal-breaker. But the outbreak does highlight just what a logistical nightmare it will be if/when something like this happens and people need to return home in a hurry. Would we be reliant on them self-isolating rather than going into managed isolation?

It bodes well that New South Wales are taking the Avalon outbreak seriously, though I’m a little worried the restrictions for Greater Sydney are a little too relaxed. If they’re contact tracing and isolating all the contacts of the contacts, as well as the contacts of the cases, then that will help limit any further transmission of the virus. I guess we’ll soon find out.

In the meantime, let’s use this as a reminder to do all we can here in New Zealand to minimise the chances of an outbreak ruining our summer holiday. So, use the Covid Tracer app (and switch on the Bluetooth option), wash your hands regularly, wear a mask when on public transport (including taxis and rideshares), and stay home and get tested if you are sick.