Australia’s second-most populous state has been slammed into another Covid lockdown after just a handful of cases were detected even as Sydney logged record infections despite being under strict measures for six weeks.
Victoria, home to the country’s second city of Melbourne, will go into strict stay-at-home orders starting 8pm Thursday and lasting for at least a week after just eight ‘mystery’ cases with no known source were uncovered.
It marks the sixth time Victoria has been locked down, with state premier Dan Andrews telling weary residents he had ‘no choice’ but to act – despite Australia being one of just a few countries still pursuing a ‘zero Covid’ strategy.
Meanwhile New South Wales, home to the country’s largest city of Sydney, registered 262 cases of Covid on Thursday – its highest toll since the pandemic began, despite large parts being under stay-at-home orders since June.
The lockdown is officially due to last until August 28 but is now almost certain to be extended beyond that, as measures were extended to the city of Newcastle and surrounding Hunter Valley after five cases were found there.
State leader Gladys Berejiklian warned on Wednesday that driving up vaccination rates is now the only viable route out of lockdown.
Victoria, home of Australia’s second city Melbourne, will go into lockdown from 8pm Thursday after just eight cases of Covid were found (pictured, officers enforce lockdown in Sydney)
‘We will not get through this numbers until we see high rates of vaccination,’ she told a press conference on Wednesday.
Since the start of the pandemic, Australia has pursued a so-called ‘zero Covid’ strategy – shutting infections out of the country using tough border quarantines and stamping out infections within its borders using snap lockdowns.
That has allowed the country to keep case and death numbers relatively low – 35,000 cases and 925 deaths – and has allowed life to continue relatively undisturbed between the lockdowns.
But border shutdowns have failed to keep out the more-infectious Delta strain while snap lockdowns are struggling to combat its spread – hampered by the fact that just 16 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the world.
That has meant either repeated returns to lockdown measures, or extended periods under harsh restrictions that is crippling the country’s economy and leading to sometimes-violent protests.
Ministers are now signalling a shift away from the ‘zero Covid’ policy by linking the easing of lockdowns with the number of people vaccinated.
Ms Berejiklian has said measures can start easing in Sydney once more than 50 per cent of people have been jabbed, which she hopes to achieve by mid-September.
Meanwhile Sydney, which has been under stay-at-home orders for six weeks (pictured), has recorded its highest one-day case toll of the whole pandemic
Australia is suffering a third wave of Covid driven by the more-infectious Delta variant of the virus, which lockdowns are struggling to suppress
Covid deaths across the country remain low (pictured), though the city of Sydney saw five people die Wednesday – its joint-highest one-day toll of the pandemic so far
Meanwhile Prime Minister Scott Morrison has hinted he will rethink the national lockdown strategy once 70 per cent have been dosed, hopefully before year-end.
Previously, lockdowns were only lifted once community transmission of Covid – i.e. people people who tested positive while not in isolation – dropped to zero.
Health officials in New South Wales said almost all of the state’s 262 new cases were located in Sydney, though five were found in Newcastle.
It is thought infections may have been spread there by a beach party that several young people travelled from Sydney to attend, in violation of the lockdown.
Schools have now been shuttered in Newcastle, with residents told they must stay at home except for essential business for at least a week.
Australia also recorded five deaths from Covid, its joint-highest one-day total of the pandemic, all of whom were in Sydney and four of whom had not been vaccinated.
‘I cannot stress enough how it’s so important for everybody of all ages to come forward and get the vaccine,’ Berejiklian said.
The five deaths in Sydney included three men in their 60s, one man in his 70s and a woman in her 80s.
New South Wales also confirmed the death of a healthy 27-year-old man from the virus a day previous, the state’s youngest victim so far.
‘As older people become vaccinated … COVID will predominantly affect the unvaccinated, in this case younger people,’ Alexandra Martiniuk, epidemiologist at the University Of Sydney, said.
Dan Andrews, leader of Victoria state (left) and New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian (right), are urging people to get vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus
Australia has fully vaccinated just 16 per cent of its population, one of the lowest rates in the world, leaving the country especially vulnerable to more-infectious variants
New South Wales health officials are imploring residents, especially people above 60, to get inoculated.
Health experts expect the country to endure stop-and-start lockdowns until it reaches a high vaccination coverage.
Mr Morrison, once hailed for his ‘zero Covid’ strategy, is now finding himself under pressure due to the slow vaccine drive which has left the population vulnerable to the emergence of new variants and the lockdowns they are sparking.
Polls show his popularity has slumped since the start of the year.
With Melbourne now back in lockdown, all three of Australia’s largest cities are now under stay-at-home orders, with Brisbane in Queensland hit last week.
That means more than half the country’s 24million people are now in some form of lockdown, having spent most of 2020 living largely restriction-free.