Canberra lockdown 2.0: The story so far

Blog post by Professor Tracy Smart AO, Public Health Lead - ANU COVID Response
31 Aug 2021

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a doctor in NSW Health about getting our students back to campus from Sydney and described the vibe in Canberra as like having a guillotine above our head and waiting for it to fall. And unsurprisingly fall it did, as our first local case of COVID-19 after 399 days plunged us into our first lockdown since the early days of the pandemic. Two and a half weeks later, with uncertainty still facing us, I have reflected on the story so far, both for Canberra and ANU, and what the next few weeks might look like. 

Origins of the outbreak

This outbreak got very big very quickly despite the ACT Government going hard early. This surprised me at the time, as I thought a first case lockdown would mean that things would be under control within a week or two. What I didn't know was that, while our first case was detected on about 11 August, it was not the first or only COVID-19 case present in the ACT at the time. From the information available to us, it would appear that the disease snuck down the Hume Highway from Sydney at least a week before and perhaps via multiple pathways. This means the genie was already out of the bottle and silently circulating but we were unaware. 

A couple of things contributed to this. Firstly, no local COVID-19 for 399 days no doubt led to a degree of complacency in Canberrans, particularly in terms of getting tested with COVID-like symptoms. You can't find COVID-19 unless you test for it, and it was only when we became aware of a local case that people started to come forward in sufficient numbers to uncover the size of the outbreak. 

The second reason was that, while much was done to limit the risk of COVID-19 entering the ACT through border measures for individuals coming from many areas of NSW, we were not doing enough to limit the risk of spread once the virus was amongst us. In other words, we should not have remained at COVID-normal as the outbreak raged to our north, but instead should have continued to wear masks and followed similar restrictions to those in place in regional NSW in late-July into early-August. If we had, the disease may not have taken hold as quickly as it did. 

ANU response

I am very proud of the way our ANU community responded to the outbreak. Due to our planning and preparation, we were able to transition seamlessly to lockdown business as usual with minimal fuss, with essential workers coming on campus and the rest of us working from home. Despite many our staff and off campus students quarantining at various stages over the past couple of weeks, I am only aware of two people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in this group. 

What was not so seamless was life for students in on-campus accommodation. Although we also had plans in place for the residences, they became redundant even before we officially entered lockdown, when ACT Health, concerned about the risks posed by the Delta variant in this potentially high-risk setting, asked us to change our approach to managing close contacts. This 'black swan event' meant that instead of just isolating the close contacts in a self-contained apartment, all other students in the residence were classified as secondary contacts, meaning the entire building had to be locked down until the close contact tested negative. A day into the lockdown, nine separate residences were in hard quarantine, making life extremely difficult for the students. 

While much has been said of the extraordinary efforts to ensure that the students were fed (including what might have been Canberra's biggest pizza run on the Thursday night), I would also like to give a huge shout-out to our residential staff who found themselves as true frontline workers, and to the students themselves who dealt with the sudden and unexpected changes of the first week of lockdown with patience and positivity and demonstrated significant leadership. It was an extraordinary effort. 

Fortunately, we were able to work productively with ACT Health over subsequent days to reduce the impact of new contacts being identified and find a way to balance the public health risk and making life a bit more liveable. This included reproducing smaller households within the residences through creating living group 'bubbles', thus reducing the risk of potential spread of COVID-19 should it enter. This proactive engagement with ACT Health also helped immensely on the second weekend of the lockdown when we had our first positive case in a residence. Due to the compliance of the students involved and the settings we had put in place, I am pleased to report that the situation was managed well and there was no transmission to other students. 

Lockdown extension

Unsurprisingly, today it was announced that the lockdown has been extended until midnight on Friday 17 September. This is because, although the lockdown is proving effective with the all-important Effective Reproduction Rate (Reff) less than one, the number of unlinked cases and the portion of new cases who are infectious in the community are of concern.

The key to coming out of lockdown is likely to be getting the number of cases that are infectious in the community down to zero for several days in a row. 

The path out of lockdown

Whenever it ends, we are not going to be going straight back to the COVID-normal life we had before, and we won't all be rushing back to campus. The Chief Minister's phrasing is that we will be "easing gently" out of lockdown. While the situation in Sydney and broader NSW continues to deteriorate, it represents a clear and present danger to the ACT. Therefore, we cannot afford our previous complacency. Although we don't know what these restrictions will look like yet, I would cast your mind back to what life was like after we came out of lockdown last year but add masks. We will be wearing masks for weeks or even months to come and will also no doubt be returning to much more stringent capacity limits in buildings and venues. The Chief Minister has flagged no face-to-face schooling this term, which means not until at least early-October. What this means for ANU is not clear yet, but we will very much dependent in the restrictions the ACT Government puts in place. 

You would have heard many politicians and commentators saying in recent weeks that the only way out of the current situation is through vaccination. 

A silver living

One positive aspect of these outbreaks is that the percentage of people wanting to be vaccinated as soon as possible has sky-rocketed, and our vaccination roll-out has now been turbo-changed. The ACT is doing exceptionally well on a per capita basis at getting jabs into arms, and the new mass vaccination centre at the AIS will mean that we can further accelerate this process as supplies of Pfizer and Moderna arrive on our shores. We are working with the ACT Government to accelerate the roll-out to our student population in coming weeks. This is especially important for our residential students, who will be hoping that life will not be so disruptive going forward. So, if you are not vaccinated yet, sign up as soon as you can, as this is the only way we will get back to a more normal life. 

Be COVID-safe, get vaxxed and follow Public Health Directions,



Professor Tracy Smart AO
Air Vice-Marshal (ret.)

Professor, Military and Aerospace Medicine (College of Health and Medicine)
Public Health Lead - COVID Response Office (Student and University Experience)