NSW cancellation of daily COVID-19 press conferences prompts mixed reaction

UNSW adjunct professor and strategic health policy consultant, Bill Bowtell, said the move shows Ms Berejiklian and her government don’t want to be held responsible for the consequences of their policies.

“It’s a very bad day for democracy. It’s a shocking day for the protection of public health in New South Wales,” he said.

“The only way you’re accountable to the people is through the press and the parliament,” he said.

“They refuse to call the parliament, and they now no longer wish to account to the press. And this is in the middle of the greatest crisis in the modern history of New South Wales.”

There are currently 1,156 COVID-19 patients in hospital in NSW.

Of those, 207 are in intensive care and 89 are on ventilators.

Modelling from the Burnet Institute shows the highest number of intensive care beds will be needed around early to mid-October.

Director of the Health Program at the Grattan Institute, Stephen Duckett, said stopping the daily press conferences now sends a bad message to frontline healthcare workers who are already struggling to cope under the stress of rising hospitalisations.

“They need to know that the stress they’re under is understood by the leadership and the leadership values what they are doing,” he said.

“Part of showing that is to be held to account for the pressure that the health workers are under.”

“This is not an issue about COVID. This is about public accountability for what’s happening in New South Wales and for the health system in New South Wales.”

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Ms Berejiklian said from Monday, daily reporting of new COVID-19 case numbers, deaths, and testing and vaccination rates will be communicated by a member of the health department through a pre-recorded video, as occurred before the current Delta outbreak.

“Leadership is turning up, leadership is taking responsibility. And every other state and territory leader in Australia turns up,” Professor Bowtell said.

“If you don’t turn up, things are going wrong in every way. It’s a very dynamic situation.”

But chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, Professor Catherine Bennett, said daily press conferences are not necessarily a useful way of communicating public health information, especially when case numbers appear to be stabilising.

“If this is actually starting to really look like the plateau, then we know that the hospitalisations that will be associated with it are within our surge capacity,” she said.

A supplied image of ICU staff caring for COVID-19 positive patients in the ICU of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney

Source: AAP

Professor Bennett said in that context, it makes more sense to hold press conferences when the situation changes, either for the better or worse.

“I think there have been some really useful add-ins to press conferences around the country, by calling in other people that are helping to explain the broader situation. But at the end of the day, it’s a lot of time and sometimes repetition,” she said.

“If you’re hearing it at the state level, then you want to know the trends, not the detail. And you want to know if there’s something new that’s been discovered, or new that’s worrying them, or new that’s encouraging everybody. That’s what you want to hear. And I think that gets lost in the detail.”

Ms Berejiklian said the figures the NSW public should focus on are vaccination rates and hospitalisation rates.

“They are the two figures critical moving forward,” she said.

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Around 76 per cent of eligible people in NSW have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.

Professor Bennett said there’s some truth to the notion that the number of cases recorded each day won’t be as much of a concern as they start to decrease.

“It’s about how we focus communication on the bigger picture, rather than on the daily detail. And that’s what the Australia plan says: we focus on disease and death, the levels of control and what restrictions we need to have in place to manage it,” she said.

“None of that is a day-to-day decision. All of that is something we monitor over days, if not weeks.”

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard addresses media during a press conference in Sydney, Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

Source: AAP

“I think the most important thing is that if they’re going to change it, that they leave that two-way trigger option; so that it’s not felt that now information is being denied, but that they start to build the trust around (that) they will trigger it when they know something,” she said.

“But equally, if there just hasn’t been something for a while and people are getting anxious, or those numbers are starting to make people worried and they’re not getting enough from those health updates, that they have the chance to work through the media and ask questions.”

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