Sydney's current social distancing 'inadequate' in controlling COVID-19 outbreak, modelling shows

University of Sydney data says not enough residents are socially distancing themselves, with health experts in agreement that Thursday's numbers do not necessarily point to a stabilising trend.

Members of the public exercising at Centennial Park in Sydney.

NSW has recorded 65 new locally transmitted coronavirus cases overnight, 28 of which were infectious during their time in the community. Source: AAP

The current level of social distancing in Sydney is inadequate to control the COVID-19 outbreak, according to University of Sydney modelling, with residents needing to further reduce social interactions such as shopping.

The modelling, which analysed the current situation up until 13 July, found that only about 40 per cent of the Sydney population is observing social distancing.

Social distancing compliance would need to be at 70 per cent for case numbers to reduce after two months and 80 per cent to see a reduction of cases after one month, said Professor Mikhail Prokopenko, COVID-19 modeller and Director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Complex Systems.

“Compliance with 80 per cent social distancing would mean that four out of five people must drastically reduce their contact with others to just 10 per cent of what they normally do,” Professor Prokopenko said in a statement.

“Our modelling indicates that the level of social distancing currently attained in Sydney is inadequate for the outbreak control.”

NSW reported with 28 people out and about in the community while infectious. The number of new cases is down from the 97 cases reported on Wednesday, which Premier Gladys Berejiklian said showed the lockdown measures were “having an impact”.

“We are seeing a stabilisation,” she told reporters on Thursday.

In his figures, Professor Prokopenko said 80 per cent social distancing compliance required a dramatic decrease in mobility, including shopping.

“This would mean reducing your shopping frequency or duration to just one out of 10 typical trips or hours. So, if someone spent 10 hours a week doing the shopping, now it needs to reduce to just one hour of shopping a week," he said.

“The same goes for chatting with neighbours, and other activities which involve being around people outside your household.

“Crucially, 80 per cent of social distancing also means that many services currently deemed essential would need to be included under the lockdown restrictions," Professor Prokopenko added.

Despite the lockdown across Greater Sydney, many retail outlets have remained open, with the state government under increasing pressure to mandate the closure of stores considered to be non-essential.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian responded on Thursday by saying “the vast majority of retail shops are not open”, and she urged Sydney residents to take responsibility for their own movements and only leave home for essential reasons.

“Every time you step foot outside the house or your unit where you live, you need to assume you have the virus and anybody you come into contact with has the virus," she said. "All of us need to stay the course, keep reducing our mobility no matter where we live.”

Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant admitted on Thursday retail settings posed a risk.

“In retail, we have noticed that there has often been transmission to workers and colleagues, so if a worker introduces it to a workplace you get transmission to other workers and in some cases transmission to patrons,” she told reporters.

Dr Stephen Parnis, Melbourne-based emergency physician and former vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, told SBS News that clarity and detail in lockdown rules are crucial.

“It’s pretty clear that most people regard their work as essential but from a public health point of view, not everyone’s work is essential. If you’re selling food at a supermarket, that is clearly essential. If you are selling CDs at JB Hi-Fi, that is not essential,” he said.

“With the speed of this new variant, we can’t afford to play games with it. When Melbourne went into lockdown in 2020, we did so in a profound way. We went hard because we knew it would limit the risks to other parts of the country. I am concerned that is not happening at the moment and there needs to be more precision in the way that lockdown is being implemented.”

Angela Webster, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Sydney, said while it was good that some retail outlets were making the decision to close, she pointed out that essential means “different things to different people”.

While clothes, shoes or electronic goods like vacuum cleaners may not be essential to some, they are to others, she said.

“In affluent areas where everyone shops online, people are able to work from home and have protected income, it’s a very different circumstance for a household in a lesser known part of Sydney, particularly around the Fairfield area where people may be unable to shop online or work from home and have other people depending on them. They will need things in a different way,” Professor Webster told SBS News.

“I think the hesitation to determine exactly what is regarded as essential or not is because it’s different for different people in different situations and the worst thing that could happen would be that already disadvantaged communities were marginalised further by being unable to access what they need.”

Both Professor Webster and Dr Parnis agree it is too early to claim the state’s COVID-19 caseload is stabilising, with numbers needing to follow a downward trend for several days for that to be considered the case.

“No one should take any comfort from today’s figures,” Dr Parnis said.

“These things could bounce back and double tomorrow. There can be no room for complacency. Sydney is at this point because they haven’t looked down hard enough and soon enough.”

Professor Webster said she was “cautiously hopeful but by no means certain” of numbers stabilising.

“Everyone’s hoping to see a turn in the tide [but] that day-to-day variation in the numbers may not mean things are going down,” she said.

“With the harder lockdown happening, we’re starting to see something now and it would be nice to believe there was a change in fortune.”

6 min read
Published 15 July 2021 at 8:34pm
By Caroline Riches