The Covid crisis in New South Wales has deepened, with eight local government areas stretching across the western part of the state forced into a hastily announced seven-day lockdown.
Expectations are also rising that tougher restrictions will be announced in greater Sydney in coming days after there were 344 local Delta cases reported on Wednesday, close to the peak of the day before. Of the new cases, 101 were in the community for part or all of their infectious period, while the isolation status of another 100 remained under investigation.
On Wednesday night, authorities announced eight local government areas in western NSW would enter a snap seven-day lockdown from 7pm. It followed news of a coronavirus case linked to Walgett, about 230km east of Bourke.
The lockdown was only finally confirmed by NSW Health in a statement issued at 6.55pm.
The mayor of Walgett shire, Ian Woodcock, told Guardian Australia about 6.30pm he’d only just been informed about the pending stay-at-home orders by a local MP.
The lockdown applies to the shires of Bogan, Bourke, Brewarrina, Coonamble, Gilgandra, Narromine, Warren and Walgett. The affected areas run from the Queensland border through the middle of NSW down to the centre of the state.
About a third of the Walgett population is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, according to census data, sparking additional concerns due to the prevalence of underlying health conditions in First Nations communities.
“We’re very worried for the elders and their families,” said Wendy Spencer, project manager of the Dharriwaa Elders Group in Walgett.
Spencer said the community was “shocked” given news of the positive case only broke on Wednesday afternoon. The group was now preparing to ensure vulnerable locals would be well supported during the lockdown.
“We’ve been working out how to be in lockdown, and make sure the elders are checked on regularly and get water,” Spencer said. She said in the past there had been a shortage of food and bottled water – which is the only drinking water available in the town.
Spencer expected there would be better stocks of essential goods this time, but added: “We’re just hoping that our supplies and our bottled water last the distance.”
She said more free masks were also needed because supplies were running low.
Earlier on Wednesday, in Dubbo, a woman in her 40s and her child were diagnosed with Covid, prompting a week-long lockdown of that region starting at 1pm.
There were new cases in the Hunter New England region, with the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, indicating the lockdown covering Newcastle was likely to be extended.
It’s been reported the state government will also move to increase restrictions and bolster compliance in the coming days, through the use of an increased Australian defence force presence, and tighter rules around the singles bubble and rules allowing people to visit a second residence outside greater Sydney.
The Northern Rivers, which was placed into a snap lockdown this week after an infectious man visited Byron Bay from Sydney to look at real estate, has not had additional cases yet. The infected man has now been charged with breaching public health orders.
Two people died of Covid in the latest reporting period: a man in his 70s and a man in his 30s.
The NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said the man in his 30s had underlying health conditions but she was concerned about the increasingly young profile of people needing intensive care for Covid-19.
Chant said that of the 62 people in intensive care, there were three in their 20s, seven in their 30s, six in their 40s and 14 in their 50s. She said 57 of the 62 were unvaccinated.
But there was at least a ray of good news.
“We are seeing pleasing improvements in Fairfield and some stabilisation in Canterbury-Bankstown,” Chant said of case numbers.
“It takes a while, but it does show that with that strong community response, with everyone working together we can actually stabilise … and bring that down.”
Berejiklian was again quizzed about what she had in mind on relaxing restrictions if NSW reached 6m jabs by the end of August when the current lockdown is due to be reviewed.
She appeared to walk back from any significant relaxation of the lockdown, suggesting instead there may be some minor easing of the rules for vaccinated people in September and October, until vaccination rates hit higher levels later in the year.
“Does it mean we will live like before the outbreak? No, but what it does mean is that people will be able to do more than they can today,” she said.
She denied she was attempting to preempt the Doherty Institute modelling that recommends relaxing some restrictions when 70% of Australians aged 16 and over are fully vaccinated.
Any relaxations are likely to be confined to communities with low case numbers but high vaccination rates. Berejiklian did not say what these thresholds would be.
Chant said the premier had asked her team to provide advice on what would be low-risk activities but the focus at the moment was on driving case numbers down.
“I am currently concerned about our case numbers, and my focus is on seeing those case numbers get as low as possible, and I think what the premier is providing is what will happen after August. My total focus and that of our team is working to drive these numbers down,” she said.
The premier also refused to say when she would outline her roadmap for a return to school and for HSC students, describing it as “a bit premature”.
“What that looks like will be dependent on the next few weeks. How much we can control the case numbers until the end of August as to what life looks like in September and October,” she said.
In federal parliament, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said he supported the NSW government’s decision to mandate vaccinations for construction workers because of the “very serious” situation in the state.
Earlier this week, Morrison said the government did not support making the vaccine mandatory, saying it was “a very important principle” that it was not mandatory and remained free.
But in question time on Wednesday, Morrison said the government supported premiers “acting on the urgent medical advice” to respond to the virus.
“They are the people who have got to make the decisions, they are the people in the room who are addressing the very serious situation in NSW,” Morrison said.
“If that is what they are being advised to do, to arrest the growth in cases in NSW, and if that will suppress those cases and drive them down and enable NSW to be in a position to make their lockdown effective and not see that virus spread and enable the country to move into the next phase, in a stronger position, I believe that is what the NSW premier is seeking to do.
“That’s difficult, I know it is not popular, but these are the necessary decisions with the Delta strain of this virus that must be put in place.”
The federal government has ruled out issuing public health orders or offering employers indemnity for mandating vaccination – despite calls from business and unions for more legal certainty surrounding such schemes.
NSW Health added several new exposure sites in the Northern Rivers region, including a number of retailers, restaurants, a petrol station and other venues in Byron Bay.
Other nearby sites at Newrybar and Bangalow, as well as a gym at Lambton in Newcastle, were also listed.
Five new exposure sites were published for Dubbo, including a Covid Safe Clinic, an IGA, a vet and a pharmacy.
– additional reporting by Sarah Martin