Gladys Berejiklian says Sydney’s lockdown conditions are harsher than any of those previously imposed in other states. Is she correct? – ABC News

The claim

As a weary NSW battles a major outbreak of the Delta variant, the state government has been criticised for failing to lock down hard enough.

Day after day, Premier Gladys Berejiklian has defended the severity of Sydney’s COVID-19 restrictions.

“These are the harshest measures any place in Australia has ever faced,” she said during a media conference on July 29, 2021.

Ms Berejiklian repeated the claim on August 5 when she said: “I want to stress this point, that we have the harshest lockdown conditions that any state in Australia has seen”.

Does Sydney have the strictest COVID-19 rules tried anywhere in the country?

RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

Ms Berejiklian’s claim is wrong.

While some of Sydney’s rules were harsher than those tried elsewhere, many were less strict.

Fact Check has assessed Ms Berejiklian’s claim against the toughest rules in NSW, which at the time applied to eight Sydney council areas.

(The list of council areas has since been expanded and further restrictions announced.)

An empty children's playground with a slide and other colourful equipment, in cold daylight.

ABC News: Patrick Rocca

In these areas, there was no nightly curfew like that imposed in Victoria.

Nor was there a daily time limit on exercise, as was the case in South Australia and elsewhere.

And in contrast to places like Western Australia and Tasmania, kids could still visit playgrounds.

In fact, Sydneysiders could still go fishing or play a round of golf, activities that were banned in Queensland and Victoria.

Even in the city’s most restricted areas, residents could make in-person visits to their local hardware store, unlike in Victoria and Tasmania.

Those who lived alone could also nominate a regular visitor to their home. States such as Queensland and the Northern Territory did not make this exception.

Victoria, South Australia and Queensland all restricted attendance at schools and daycare to vulnerable children and those of essential workers.

But while Sydney’s schools had moved to online learning, there were no such explicit criteria.

A view across a river to a single-level white house, surrounded by trees.

ABC: Movin’ To The Country

At least four states also banned visits to second homes, whereas NSW carved out an exemption for this that applied even to the eight council areas.

On the other side of the ledger, NSW was the only state that forced essential workers to get tested regularly for COVID-19 if they wanted to work outside their council area.

It was also harsher than most in restricting funerals within the eight council areas to family.

Certainly, Sydney’s construction ban was strict, but no stricter than similar bans in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

And while fines for breaching the state’s rules were nothing to scoff at, those in the Northern Territory, for example, were up to six times higher.

The NSW government has since tightened the rules for its most locked-down areas.

These changes included a nightly curfew, time limits on exercise and the closure of hardware stores, measures that had been tried in other states.

A jogger runs past the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset.

AAP: Mick Tsikas

Sydney’s ‘harshest’ measures?

Fact Check has assessed Ms Berejiklian’s claim on the basis of her state’s strictest rules, as they stood on August 5.

These applied to eight council areas in Sydney’s south and west.

Residents were ordered to stay home unless they had a “reasonable excuse”. Broadly, this covered shopping, exercise, work, study, medical care and compassionate reasons. 

Such trips were generally restricted to within 5 km from home, with face masks mandatory outdoors.

Only “authorised workers” were permitted leave their council area for work, and some would also need to have a COVID-19 test every three days. 

Like the rest of Sydney, non-essential businesses were closed except for takeaway and delivery, including “click and collect”.

However, a ban on construction, which had been lifted elsewhere, remained in place.

Australia’s toughest lockdowns

Ms Berejiklian compared her state’s restrictions to the harshest that “any place in Australia has seen”.

At the time, there had been 21 instances — including the ongoing NSW lockdown — where states had issued enforceable “stay-home orders”.

Fact Check has considered a selection of rules from the strictest lockdowns in each state or territory, excluding the ACT.

This covers: Tasmania in March-April 2020; Victoria in August-September 2020; the Northern Territory and Western Australia in June-July 2021; NSW and Queensland in July-August 2021.

Since some rules during South Australia’s November 2020 lockdown lasted just 24 hours, Fact Check has also considered the state’s July 2021 lockdown.

Exercise and recreation

A person playing golf in retirement

Tord Sollie; Flickr.com/CC/BY-NC-ND/2.0

When it came to exercise, Sydney’s rules were generally more relaxed than in other states.

Residents in the eight council areas could take “exercise or outdoor recreation” with members of their household or one other person, but had to keep within five kilometres from home.

There was, however, no daily time limit like in many other states. South Australia even banned outdoor exercise for one day during its first hard lockdown.

Most states also closed playgrounds, which remained open across NSW.

Several states also went further than NSW by restricting exercise to members of the same household. 

Meanwhile, residents in Sydney’s eight council areas could still head out for a round of golf or go fishing, on the same basis as Greater Sydney.

Both were banned in Queensland, for example, and also Victoria, which outlawed “recreational activities including fishing, hunting, golf, boating, or recreational flying”.

South Australia, too, banned fishing during its second lockdown.

Buying ‘essentials’

Sydney’s most locked-down residents also faced a 5km rule for buying essential goods, compared with a 10km limit in Queensland.

They could, however, travel further afield if necessary.

As for what they could buy, takeaway was always an option — something South Australia temporarily banned during its first lockdown.

They could also inspect real estate if they wanted to buy a house. By contrast, several states prohibited in-person property inspections.

In Sydney’s eight council areas, people could visit hardware stores and office suppliers in person. 

This was less harsh than in Victoria and Tasmania, which restricted large office retailers to “click and collect” and hardware stores to trade customers. 

What about masks?

In Sydney’s eight council areas, residents had to wear masks whenever they were outside in public.

But there were times they could remove them them, such as while doing “strenuous exercise”.

Some states made no exceptions for exercise — though the Western Australian government at least said masks could be taken off while swimming.

Travelling the city

Some of the rules for Sydney’s eight council areas were harsher than in other states.

Within these areas, workers could go to work if their business was open and operating. However, only “authorised workers” were allowed to travel further afield. 

In some cases, authorised workers also had to take a regular COVID-19 test before they could leave their council area.

While Melbourne’s essential workers were required to carry a permit  whenever they left the house, they could otherwise travel across the city.

But unlike in Sydney, Victoria imposed a nightly curfew.

Going up the country

Sydney’s harshest rules did not specifically ban regional travel and allowed residents to move “between [their] different places of residence”.

Several states explicitly banned this.

For example, the Northern Territory’s health orders stated: “If a person resides in more than one place, the premises where the person resides at the time [the health orders] commenced must remain at their place of residence for the duration”.

Tasmania prohibited people from visiting their holiday shacks.

Meanwhile, Victoria banned visits to second homes and established police checkpoints to enforce its so-called “ring of steel” around Melbourne.

Workers in the eight council areas could still travel into the regions if their business was open, but had to take a regular COVID-19 test if travelling more than 50km.

Family and friends

A casket with red roses on top in the back of a hearse.

Unsplash

In the week before Ms Berejiklian’s claim, the government introduced a so-called “singles bubble”, allowing people who lived alone to have one regular visitor to their home.

Most states did not make an exception for singles. 

Victoria eventually introduced a bubble, but it came two months into its lockdown as restrictions began to ease.

In Sydney’s eight council areas, residents could only attend a funeral if they were “a spouse (including de facto), parent, child or sibling of the deceased”.

This was harsher than in most states, though South Australia banned funerals completely during its first lockdown.

Schools and child care

Sydney’s rules for who could attend school and child care were also less strict than elsewhere.

The government moved schools to online learning and told parents they “must keep children at home”, though schools remained open “for any child that needs it”.

Parents in the eight council areas were also “strongly encouraged” to avoid using child care.

But aside from limiting schools to students unable to learn from home, the health orders placed no further constraints on attending school or child care.

Other states explicitly restricted attendance to the children of essential workers and vulnerable kids.

In South Australia, for example, vulnerability was to be determined “by a government agency, school, funded family or family violence service”.

What about construction?

A danger sign on a metal fence with cranes in the background.

ABC News: Ian Cutmore

Among Sydney’s harshest restrictions was a ban on construction.

This measure was stricter than in Victoria, which allowed commercial and residential construction, albeit with significantly reduced staff levels.

However, construction bans were not unique to NSW, having also been adopted in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The penalties

Finally, Fact Check has assessed the penalties for breaching health orders in each state and territory.

These were the penalties in force at the date of the claim.

At the time, police in Sydney could issue $1,000 on-the-spot fines for breaking the rules.

These were below similar fines in Queensland and Victoria, and well behind the $5,042 fines threatened in the Northern Territory.

Victorians could also be fined $5,452 specifically for breaching gathering rules.

Through the courts, maximum fines in NSW were the lowest of anywhere in the country outside the ACT.

In Western Australia and the Northern Territory,  these penalties were five to six times higher.

Still, it’s worth noting that NSW has brought in a $10,000 fine for employers who do not allow their employees to work from home if they reasonably can.

NSW and Tasmania have since announced new on-the-spot fines that this analysis has not considered, as they were introduced after Ms Berejiklian’s claim.

Notes: “Specific fines” included above are for breaches of gathering rules (Vic). Several states can also issue lesser fines, such as for not wearing a facemask. WA fines refer to those under the Emergency Management Act 2005. Under the Public Health Act 2016, courts can impose separate fines for individuals ($20k) and businesses ($100k). Sources: state governments and police departments, August 2021. (Credit: RMIT ABC Fact Check)

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