Dominic Perrottet has finally realised that ‘letting it rip’ comes at too high a cost – for all of us


New South Wales’s laissez-faire premier, Dominic Perrottet, has found himself mugged by reality on the cusp of Christmas.

Here are the grim statistics that tell us what is happening in NSW: 5,715 new cases reported on Thursday; 1,500 health workers sick or isolating (leaving the health system even more stressed); rising Covid cases in ICU and nearly 150,000 people a day lining up to get tested.

Yes, some of these are travellers, who are required to be tested by other states. But most are people who worry they have been exposed and are now wondering whether they should attend Christmas Day with parents or grandparents.

In the three weeks since the Omicron variant was first detected here on 28 November, Perrottet has been telling us to go out and spend, head to the pub, get back to normal.

A week ago, NSW dropped its last remaining restrictions on mask-wearing, mandatory QR code check-ins and venue capacity limits.

“Personal responsibility” was Perrottet’s main mantra. “Living with the virus” was his backup. He even did a gawky media picture opportunity at a pub, downing a schooner.

Perrottet’s subtext was that people who wanted the rules on wearing masks indoors to remain – or the continuance of QR codes – were all for NSW being a nanny state.

The Liberal premier was backed this week by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, who after national cabinet brushed off the idea of pushing for mask mandates.

Premiers and chief ministers would make their own decisions about how best to promote masks, Morrison said, adding that some leaders “like to use mandates” and others “rely on the individual responsibility to achieve that”.

“What matters is that people wear them, not whether people get fined,” Morrison said.

Most people are wearing masks in retail settings in NSW. But, and here’s the kicker, the problem is the 15-20% who are not.

As health authorities have stated, mask-wearing is particularly effective at stopping people who have the virus from breathing it onto others, and somewhat effective at stopping a person breathing in the virus. So dampening transmission depends on everyone doing it.

“Implementation of mask-wearing measures should occur prior to Omicron case escalation to have maximum benefit,” recommended the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC).

Social distancing helps as well. But how do you do this when the venue owner allows hundreds in, as they are entitled to do in Perrottet’s NSW.

NSW scrapped most restrictions on 15 December – just in time to see the Omicron variant run rampant in the lead up to Christmas. Masks indoors are now being mandated again from midnight. Density caps are back on 27 December. QR code check-ins are being reinstated too.

The irony for many businesses hoping a pro-business Perrottet would be good for business is it’s too late: staff are already ill or isolating, patrons are staying at home for fear of getting Covid, travel has been cancelled.

The virus is hitting young people, with over 70% of cases among the 10 to 39-year-old cohort. They are the ones who have been going to crowded nightclubs and bars – just as Perrottet encouraged them to do.

Many young people are now trying to address the risks they have taken since restrictions were relaxed by Perrottet by getting tested at clinics or doing rapid antigen tests, which are all but sold out.

So what did Perrottet say on Thursday when backflipping on the easing of restrictions?

“[Use] personal responsibility and common sense and be cautious over the Christmas break.” But he also wants some people to stop getting tested.

“If you don’t need a test, don’t get one, because it always delays the turnaround time,” he said. “That’s affecting interstate flights and travel and affecting things like surgeries.”

The state’s somewhat sidelined chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, made a rare appearance with Perrottet on Thursday. She said the new advice was to get tested if you had symptoms or if directed by NSW Health.

NSW is also redefining “close contacts” to include only household contacts, contact with people in high-risk settings such as aged care, hospitals and Indigenous communities or if the health department contacts you.

Perhaps Perrottet has sensed the public mood, finally. It’s one of worry – that NSW is out of control, that cases are skyrocketing, as has happened in the UK, many parts of Europe, and the US.

My prediction is there will now be more urgent backtracking from Perrottet. The health minister, Brad Hazzard, did not rule out restrictions on New Year gatherings. Cancelling elective surgery is also being discussed.

The spread of the virus is already baked into the next two weeks’ case numbers. Expect NSW to quickly reach 10,000 cases a day.

What changes the transmission rate (and case numbers) is changes in behaviour – and that depends on leadership from the top. No matter what the premier says.

What determines the stress on the hospital system – the government’s new measure of how we are living with the virus – is case numbers and staffing. Both are going in the wrong direction.

The past week of no restrictions will be rued as a lost week in the fight against the impact of Omicron.

Perrottet could well learn the hard way that “letting it rip” in the interests of the economy comes at a high cost.