Michael Pascoe: Why NSW’s ‘Picnic Day’ could come at a huge COVID cost

COVID case numbers are accelerating in the picnic belt, warns Michael Pascoe.

COVID case numbers are accelerating in the picnic belt, warns Michael Pascoe. Photo: Getty/TND

Monday is Sydney’s ‘Picnic Day’ – the promised treat for people outside the 12 “local government areas of concern” – but it comes as COVID case numbers are accelerating in the picnic belt.

The “treat” is in danger of becoming a tragic trick, especially for the City of Sydney LGA which now looks like hotspot Canterbury-Bankstown did a month ago.

While everyone wants more freedom after nearly 12 weeks of various stages of restraint, it looks like New South Wales is taking a major gamble before the fully vaccinated rate is high enough.

More than 20 per cent of new cases in NSW are occurring outside the 12 LGAs that remain under much tougher restrictions.

At the start of August, those 12 LGAs accounted for 90 per cent of cases.

That growing proportion is itself of a much larger number with 1480 reported on Wednesday – the first days of August averaged 128 cases.

The City of Sydney averaged 48 new cases a day over the past five days, the source of nearly all of them “under investigation” and likely to remain unknown given swamped contact tracing.

Canterbury-Bankstown averaged 68 new cases a day in the first week of August – and that LGA has about 65 per cent more people than the city’s quarter million.

There were just 11 new cases in the Sydney LGA on August 26 when Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced five fully vaccinated people could get together in the open from September 13 – “Picnic Day” as it has since been dubbed.

It was the “treat” the Premier promised NSW when it hit six million jabs, a freedom not universally welcomed by public health experts with the idea of vaccination treats itself becoming a source of satire.

And the danger of opening the stable door at a dangerous time doesn’t just apply to the City of Sydney.

On a rough calculation of the latest five days divided by the prior five, the R factor – the replication rate – for the 12 LGAs averaged 1.18 over the first six days of this month but 1.43 for the rest of Greater Sydney. For the City of Sydney it was 1.59.

While fully vaccinated people are much less likely to become seriously ill from the virus, they can still spread it to the unvaccinated.

The particular problem for the city is that it includes areas with relatively low vaccination rates, as TND reported on Tuesday and the Premier specified on Wednesday.

The Inner West and Randwick LGAs also have pockets of sub-standard vaccination – and rising case numbers and high R factors.

Both of them, plus Camden, have had more cases over the past seven days than Strathfield and Burwood, which are in the 12 LGAs “of concern”.

The City of Sydney has had more cases than Bayside and Georges River as well, two other councils in the 12.

Something appears seriously amiss in the ranking of risk by the NSW government.

The Picnic Day experiment could prove a very costly push into higher case loads with the inevitable outcome for hospitalisation and ICU admissions.

And there remains the mystery of what the Burnet Institute modelling now says about the outlook for the rest of Greater Sydney.

The Institute has clarified that its initial modelling, based on data to August 23, underestimated what was ahead – but the government has not released what it now looks like.

Using, Tweep @RichardfromSyd1 graphed the proportion of COVID cases in the 12 LGAs of concern along with the rest of Greater Sydney and regional areas.

Graph: @RichardfromSyd1

It’s not Burnet Institute work, but the outlook with the R factor is for there to be more COVID cases outside the 12 LGAs than in them soon enough.

But Picnic Day is going ahead. It could be a fortunate thing that the weather forecast for Monday is cool and wet.

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