NSW Health has decided to stop publishing Covid exposure sites in greater Sydney, unless they are high risk, after the list ballooned to thousands of locations over the past week.
The department will, however, continue to publish exposure sites in regional New South Wales, where Covid-19 has spread between towns.
“What we’ve learned is where the infection is most likely to spread,” the deputy chief health officer, Dr Jeremy McAnulty, said on Tuesday as he explained the new policy.
“That’s why we’re focusing on those areas and we’ve learned that people get lost in the detail when we put up venues that we don’t think are risk places on the website or in the media.”
The policy changed over the weekend and was only made public when the media questioned why the number of exposure sites had dramatically shrunk.
The NSW government revealed on Tuesday that over 70% of transmission was occurring within households and some people were visiting other households in breach of the rules.
There is also transmission in workplaces such as factories, childcare centres and among staff working together in retail.
But supermarkets and takeaway venues, which had previously made up a large part of the list of exposure sites, were now considered low risk, McAnulty said.
“We just don’t see very much transmission at all in … supermarkets, shopping centres and so on. So we’re now deliberately prioritising in the metropolitan area venues or places where people have been in households, in other households not their own, in workplaces, and high-risk settings such as hospitals, aged care facilities, educational settings, including childcare settings,” he said.
For now, the health department appears to be restricting publication to sites outside the greater Sydney area.
“We continue – in places outside metropolitan Sydney or areas where we haven’t seen large numbers of cases, such as regional Sydney, regional parts of the state, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Wollongong – we continue to put even the tiniest risk venues on the website,” McAnulty said.
“In those areas in the metropolitan area where we know that there are many, many places that cases have gone but little risk, we’re deliberately focusing on places I’ve mentioned.”
La Trobe University school of psychology and public health Associate Prof Hassan Vally said the decision was a marked departure from what the public had come to expect – and was “surprising”.
“It’s a curious move and I’m not quite sure what it achieves,” he said.
“There is a concern that you erode confidence and people believe that there’s some ulterior motive. It is better in this sort of crisis situation to give people all the information and then guide them as to what is relevant to them, or how you want them to use the information, rather than to start restricting what you give to people.”
Vally said while people had adjusted to using QR code check-in apps, and that had made the work of the public health team a lot easier, providing people with as much information as possible during a pandemic was the best policy.
“People do have a natural and healthy level of suspicion when governments make those judgments for people,” he said. “I think people can decide when they are overwhelmed or not – and not look at information if it’s overwhelming.”
The NSW government has denied that its contact tracing system is unable to cope, but admitted it is under pressure and had been scaled up, with Australian Defence Force personnel assisting.
There has been anecdotal evidence of people waiting several days to be notified by phone of potential exposure, and only realising they needed a test because they checked the lists of exposure sites or were informed by the business.
Until last week the health advice was for people to regularly check the NSW Health website for exposure sites and to get tested if they had visited any of the venues at the same time as a Covid-positive case. That will no longer be possible.
Instead, the government will rely on QR check-ins and direct contact to notify people of potential exposure to a Covid case.
This week the Coalition announced it would rely on text messages to reach positive cases in the first instance, after acknowledging contact tracers were taking time to interview cases. Texts are also used to notify people who are either close contacts or casual contacts.
However, there have been notable examples of venues where people say they have visited a venue listed but were not contacted, despite checking in. This occurred at the Woolworths at Glenrose Village Shopping Centre in Belrose last month, where dozens of shoppers complained they had not been contacted.
The lists have also been used by people to monitor where the outbreaks are occurring in Sydney. Since the lockdown, almost 80% of new cases have occurred in 12 local government hotspot areas in western Sydney.
The new rules restrict people in hotspot LGAs from moving more than 5km from their home, except for authorised work in aged care, healthcare, supermarkets and essential services, so exposure sites have tended to be concentrated in western and south-western Sydney, until the recent outbreaks in the Hunter and western NSW.
The government is also releasing daily data on detections of fragments of the virus in the sewage system which provides an indicator of where potential cases are.