Authorities in Sydney extended a lockdown by four weeks on Wednesday after an already protracted stay-at-home order failed to curb a Covid-19 outbreak, with the authorities warning of tougher policing to stamp out non-compliance.
The Australian city was due to exit lockdown in three days, however, the population of five million people has now been told to stay home until August 28th following persistently high case numbers since a flare-up of the Delta variant began last month.
The state of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, reported 177 new cases for Tuesday, up from 172 on Monday – the biggest increase since the current outbreak began. The state also reported the death of a woman in her 90s, the 11th death of the outbreak.
Of particular concern, at least 46 of the new cases were people active in the community before being diagnosed, raising the likelihood of transmission, said the authorities, who have cautioned that active community transmission must be near zero before relaxing the rules.
“I am as upset and frustrated as all of you that we were not able to get the case numbers we would have liked at this point in time but that is the reality,” said state premier Gladys Berejiklian at a televised news conference.
Ms Berejiklian added that police would boost enforcement of wide-ranging social distancing rules and urged people to report suspected wrongdoing, saying “we cannot put up with people continuing to do the wrong thing because it is setting us all back”.
In one case, a mourning ceremony attended by 50 people in violation of lockdown rules resulted in 45 infections, she said.
The extension turns what was initially intended to be a “snap” lockdown of Australia’s most populous city into one of the country’s longest since the start of the pandemic, and may spark the country’s second recession in two years, according to economists.
To minimise the economic impact, the New South Wales government said it would lift a ban on non-occupied construction in most of Sydney. However, it expanded a list of local government areas within the city where the ban would stay because of the prevalence of Covid-19 cases there.
Slow vaccine rollout
The popularity of the federal government may suffer from the extended lockdown. Polls show slipping support for prime minister Scott Morrison’s government amid criticism of a slow vaccination rollout that has been blamed on changing regulatory advice and supply shortages.
“There is no other shortcut, there is no other way through, we have to just hunker down and push through,” said Mr Morrison during a televised news conference in the capital Canberra. He acknowledged his own family was caught up in the Sydney lockdown.
“There will be lots of criticisms, there will be lots of hindsight, but this Delta strain is very unpredictable.”
On Wednesday, the New South Wales government said it was redirecting Pfizer doses, which have so far been restricted to people aged 40 to 60, from relatively unaffected regional areas to final-year school students in the worst-affected Sydney neighbourhoods.
The state and federal governments also said they were expanding a relief funding package to enable affected companies to keep paying wages through the closure.
Meanwhile, the states of Victoria and South Australia began their first day out of shorter lockdowns that halted outbreaks there. Victoria reported eight new cases, all of them isolated throughout their infectious period, and another case still under investigation.
Queensland state reported one new case, a man who completed the country’s mandatory two weeks of hotel quarantine then tested positive nine days later. The authorities said they were trying to track down people who may have been in close contact with him, including occupants of a youth hostel where he stayed.
Australia has kept its Covid-19 numbers relatively low, with just more than 33,200 cases and 921 deaths, out of a population of about 25 million, since the pandemic began, but the fast-moving Delta strain and low vaccination coverage have frustrated residents. – Reuters