CANBERRA/BRISBANE • Travellers to Australia will have to show a negative Covid-19 test before they can get on their plane, as the city of Brisbane went into lockdown after the discovery of a case of a virulent new coronavirus variant.
The more than two million residents of Brisbane, Australia's third-largest city, are barred from leaving their homes for anything but essential business for three days from last night, after a worker at a quarantine hotel tested positive for the new variant, which was first detected in Britain.
Australia has detected several cases of the variant but this was the first one to appear outside the quarantine system.
The country has also found a variant that emerged in South Africa in hotel quarantine.
It was not known if the hotel worker, a cleaner, was infected by someone who arrived from Britain, but everyone would now need to show a negative test upon arrival in the hope of keeping the new strain out, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced.
He justified the Brisbane lockdown, given the danger that the new variant could quickly become the dominant strain of the virus. "I know there will be some in Brisbane asking, 'Why is this necessary? There is only one case'. Well, this isn't any ordinary case. This is a very special case and one that requires us to treat things quite differently," Mr Morrison said.
Australia has had about 28,500 cases of the coronavirus and some 900 deaths, far fewer than many other countries, partly because of strict border controls from the outset of the pandemic.
Since March, the border has been shut to all non-citizens and permanent residents, and the number of people allowed back each week has been capped at just over 6,000, with everyone going into mandatory hotel quarantine at their expense.
More than 35,000 Australians have registered their intention to return, but Mr Morrison said the number allowed back would be cut by nearly half until mid-February, given the danger of the variant.
"We can't put it back in the box. We've got to act before we get the cases," said Ms Jeannette Young, chief health officer of Queensland, whose capital is Brisbane.
Other states moved quickly to isolate Queensland. Western Australia said Queenslanders could not travel there, and others implemented mandatory quarantine for arrivals from the state.
Brisbane residents out on essential business must wear masks. Funerals and weddings are limited to 20 and 10 people, respectively, while entertainment venues will close.