Covid cases rise in New South Wales as breast cancer screening halted

Move to redeploy medical staff could result in up to 500 extra deaths, experts warn

Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, recorded 681 new Covid cases on Thursday, its highest number since the pandemic started. But with a reproduction number of 1.3 – a measure of the rate at which the virus reproduces – it is feared cases could pass more than 2,000 a day within weeks.

With the New South Wales capital Sydney in lockdown now for eight weeks, and many other cities and regions also under restriction, anger is growing that the federal and some state governments did not act quickly enough to combat the surge in cases.

Opposition Labor Party senator Katy Gallagher criticised Australia's vaccine rollout after her teenage daughter tested positive for Covid-19. "These events bring a sharp personal focus to the consequences of our government's failure to ensure a prompt, efficient national rollout of vaccines," she said.

The redeploying of medical staff to focus on Covid-19 has led to breast cancer screening being suspended in New South Wales, a move medical experts warn could result in up to 500 extra deaths.


Oncologist Peter O'Brien said he was particularly concerned about the impact on rural areas. "We are worried these closures will exacerbate pre-existing healthcare access gaps felt in these communities," he said. "For women in regional Australia, the pink screening bus is often the only way these women can get their breasts checked."

Across New South Wales, 29 per cent of eligible people are fully vaccinated and 55 per cent have had one dose, but numbers vary greatly from region to region. The towns of Mullumbimby and Byron Bay – the centre of the state’s wellness and alternative lifestyle communities – have seen security guards deployed to post offices after more than a third of customers refused to take protective measures such as wear masks or use hand sanitiser.

The security was called in at the insistence of the postal workers’ union, but some private enterprises in the region have signs on their doors saying they will not ask anyone to wear a mask, while some other premises have asked anyone who is vaccinated not to enter.

There are also varying lockdown regulations within cities. In western Sydney, where most of the Covid cases are coming from, basketball hoops have been removed and lights turned off in parks, while in other parts of the city people are still swimming at the beaches.

Victoria's state premier Daniel Andrews did not mince his words in lambasting those ignoring regulations. When it was revealed an engagement party with 69 attendees – nine of whom have since tested positive for Covid-19 – had been held in Melbourne, Mr Andrews said: "They are sh***y choices and they keep us all locked down for longer than we should be."

Though the federal government is refusing to mandate vaccinations, some businesses have, including the Qantas airline. Its frontline workers such as cabin crew, pilots and airport workers must be fully vaccinated by November 15th and the remainder of employees will need to do so by March 31st.

"Having a fully vaccinated workforce will safeguard our people against the virus but also protect our customers and the communities we fly to," Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said.

Pádraig Collins

Pádraig Collins

Pádraig Collins a contributor to The Irish Times based in Sydney