Scott Morrison says giving up on COVID suppression and lockdowns would be “absurd”, in a veiled message to Gladys Berejiklian that the Sydney lockdown must continue until cases are significantly lower.
New South Wales logged another record day of virus cases on Tuesday, with the Prime Minister airing his belief – in a party room meeting and at a later press conference – that lockdown measures can’t be lifted yet.
“The suggestion that somehow we will now say it’s too hard is absurd,” Mr Morrison told colleagues, according to a summary of the meeting provided by a government source.
“Australians have worked too hard to put us in the position we are in now, and we need to preserve those things as we go into the next phase. We will get there.”
Gladys feels the Delta strain
NSW recorded another 356 local cases and four deaths on Tuesday, the state’s highest daily caseload throughout the whole pandemic.
Despite cases continuing to rise, Premier Berejiklian has flagged easing some selected lockdown restrictions once her state hits six million vaccination doses.
For weeks she pushed back against calls for tougher restrictions in the Greater Sydney area.
Restrictions were eventually brought in and concentrated on areas on concerns like Sydney’s west and south-west, but case numbers continue to rise in those areas.
“Delta is different. We need to treat it differently, and NSW doesn’t have any intention of putting in strategies that aren’t going to work,” Ms Berejiklian said on Tuesday.
“If we thought they’d have a significant or even marginal impact, of course we’d do those things, but there is no evidence to suggest that.”
Morrison backs Berejiklian – until he doesn’t
Mr Morrison has carefully fended off criticisms of Ms Berejiklian’s six million vaccination target, not criticising the plan to ease some small restrictions at that stage.
On Monday, he said that target was a NSW-specific one, and not at cross purposes to the separate Doherty Institute modelling that set out 70 and 80 per cent vaccinations for the reopening roadmap.
But the Prime Minister stressed “the lower the case numbers are when we go into Phase B, the better – not just for the nation’s health, but for the nation’s economy as well”.
“We’re going for low case numbers. We’re going for low fatality rates, and we’re going for a vaccinated country,” he said on Monday.
On Tuesday, Mr Morrison was more specific, saying that calls to ease COVID restrictions now – some of which are coming from his backbench – were premature.
Asked at a Canberra press conference whether Ms Berejiklian should “lockdown harder like Melbourne”, Mr Morrison said the stay-home orders were vital.
“The lockdown is important to suppress the virus. So when we get to the next phase, we go in stronger, not weaker,” he said.
“Too many Australians have done too much to put us in a strong position. We cannot squander it.”
Mr Morrison specifically directed his comments at Sydney, saying “it’s important that we don’t give up on it”.
But in the Coalition party room, Mr Morrison admitted the Delta variant had “completely changed the game”, and meant “the tools we had before that suppress the virus don’t work like they did” – echoing similar comments from Ms Berejiklian.
Sydney’s release still unclear
The Premier has not set a marker of when Sydney’s wider lockdown will lift more generally, but has continually said it would only be when case numbers are “close” to zero, or vaccination rates were very high.
Mr Morrison said on Tuesday that “you can’t eliminate COVID”.
“We all understand that and no one’s seeking to do that. That is not any government’s policy in this country,” he said.
“But minimising those cases is going to ensure that we go into the next phase a lot stronger.”
Federal ministers had raised the spectre of NSW being “isolated” long term from the rest of the nation, if lockdowns were lifted without cases being significantly lower.