Australia Covid-19 numbers surge as Omicron outbreak strains domestic politics

Medical workers preparing to provide Covid-19 tests to people at a drive-through site in Brisbane, Australia, on Dec 27, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australia recorded another record surge in Covid-19 infections on Tuesday (Dec 28) as an outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron variant disrupted reopening of the economy, while state leaders argued over domestic border controls.

The country reported 11,264 new cases of the coronavirus in the previous day, according to a Reuters calculation of state figures, once again surpassing its peak of a day earlier, as it grapples with a planned reopening while the new variant rages.  

There were five Covid-19 deaths reported, taking the total fatalities to just over 2,200 since the start of the pandemic.  

The authorities did not specify whether any of the new deaths were related to the Omicron variant. 

The country's five other states and territories, which have also been experiencing flare-ups of the virus, were yet to report figures.

The Omicron variant, which medical experts say is more transmissible but less virulent than previous strains, began to spread in Australia just as the country got under way with its plan to reopen after nearly two years of stop-start lockdowns.

With the resumption of rising case numbers - despite a vaccination rate of more than 90 per cent for Australians aged over 16 - the country's state leaders have brought back some containment measures like mandatory mask-wearing and QR code check-ins at public venues.

The rising case numbers have also led to mandatory self-isolation for thousands of workers in the hospitality, entertainment and airline sectors - the sectors worst hit by lockdowns - resulting in cancelled theatre shows, closed restaurants and postponed flights.

The new outbreak has also fuelled a resumption of fractious domestic politics which defined much of the pandemic as some states resist calls to remove internal border controls.

New South Wales (NSW), home to Sydney and a third of Australia's 25 million population, called on neighbouring Queensland to shift from mandatory clinical testing to on-the-spot rapid antigen testing for people travelling to the tourist-popular state following complaints of hours-long wait times.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said a quarter of his state's PCR tests were "tourism tests", causing enormous pressure on the health system, extraordinarily long testing queues and wait times for results, sometimes for days.

In one case, a Sydney testing clinic sent incorrect negative test results to some 1,400 people.

Mr Hazzard said the bungle was the result of "human error, and when people are under pressure, human errors are more frequent".

He called on Queensland to scrap mandatory clinical tests immediately, rather than after Jan 1 as planned, but the Queensland authorities said the policy was working.  

Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath instead said the state would remove another testing rule for interstate arrivals: people arriving in the state would no longer have to take a virus test five days after arriving.

Australia's international border remains effectively closed, but Australian nationals may return without mandatory hotel quarantine and the country has said it would allow certain skilled workers and foreign students in.

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