As newly installed Premier Dominic Perrottet eased restrictions for fully vaccinated people in New South Wales on October 11, First Nations people in the Hunter region are being infected at an alarming rate, with at least 60 cases recorded in the past week.
Recreation facilities will reopen with density limits for up to 5000 people, but an exemption has been given for Everest, the world’s richest horse race. Ten thousand people will be able to gather for the race on October 16, in a bid to up the gambling stakes for the $15 million prize.
The NSW Department of Education said on-site learning will return with level three safety measures on October 25, a week earlier than planned. Perrottet justified this on the grounds that 72.8% of the population is fully vaccinated, despite this not including about 20% of the population who are under 16 years old.
OzSAGE, a network of epidemiological experts, pointed out that children are the largest unvaccinated group and are therefore likely to contribute to community transmission. Children between the ages of 12 and 15 have been eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations only since September 13. As at October 11, only 16.2% had been fully vaccinated.
Despite the danger of unvaccinated children transmitting the virus, the NSW government has not made it a requirement for children aged 12 and under to wear masks at school. Its accelerated plan to reopen state schools blindsided the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF), which had been working on a staged return for children in early November.
This was the third time the government made changes to the school reopening plan without consulting educators. It has also failed to deliver on promises to prioritise teachers in the vaccine rollout.
Modelling from the Doherty Institute estimated that, in the most likely post-opening scenario, 276,000 children would be “infected in the first six months after reopening, with 2,400 hospitalisations, 206 ICU admissions and 57 child deaths in that time”.
The NSWTF said the accelerated reopening plan will stop teachers from testing and adjusting COVID-19 health and safety settings; students and teachers return while audits are still underway for schools’ ventilation requirements.
Meanwhile, NSW Department of Health figures show that vaccination rates in some postcodes are as low as 30 or 40%. In suburbs near large universities, such as Kingsford, Chippendale, Macquarie University and Ultimo, vaccination rates lag. By October 9, less than 50% of eligible residents in those suburbs had received two doses.
Omar Khorshid, president of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), said on October 7 that the AMA is “very concerned” by Perrottet’s “apparent shift in approach”. “The changes to the roadmap have occurred at the eleventh hour without the presence of the chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, at the announcement.”
Meanwhile, the government’s “crisis cabinet” has become an “Economic Recovery Committee”, suggesting, Khorshid said, “that health advice will no longer guide the NSW government”.
By October 7, nine Aboriginal people had died from COVID-19. Yawuru woman Kalinda Griffiths, from OzSAGE’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander working group, said: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced an incidence rate that is almost twice that of non-Indigenous people throughout the Delta outbreak.” She added that the proportion of deaths in those aged 40 to 59 years is “about three times higher than that of the non-Indigenous population”.
Griffiths, an epidemiologist, said OzSAGE wants 95-100% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 12 to be fully vaccinated before states and territories open up.
The easing of restrictions has also concerned thousands of people with disabilities. People with Disability Australia reported on October 11 that just over a third of NDIS participants had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19; among NDIS participants aged between 12 and 15, the rate was just 4.8%.
These low rates of vaccination among people who are more likely to develop serious illness or die from COVID-19 are, in large part, a consequence of their de-prioritisation in the vaccine rollout.
People With Disability Australia president Samantha Connor said on October 11 that, while “many think that a loosening of lockdown means the worst is over, the opposite is true for many people with disability, because for them the worst is yet to come”. She said the NSW government, in particular, “need[s] to understand that putting at-risk people in further danger is unconscionable”. She said it must “set vaccination targets and improve vaccination strategies for people with disability and their support workers to ensure people with disability can be safe”.
The draft commissioners’ report from the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability released on September 27, said state governments should not begin lifting stay-at-home orders until all people with disability have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated.
OzSAGE recommended a layered and combined protection strategy. It wants governments to ensure ventilation for all buildings, along with vaccines, testing, tracing and non-pharmaceutical interventions including: crowd control; movement restrictions; masks; blended learning and working (online and face-to-face mix); curfews; lockdowns; and other measures that reduce contact between people.