Melbourne locked down again as Australia’s Delta outbreak grows

Mandatory mask rules indoors were reintroduced for Victoria's more than six million residents on July 14, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Melbourne will enter a snap five-day lockdown from midnight, joining Sydney in imposing stay-at-home restrictions as the delta strain of the coronavirus spreads around Southeast Australia, the nation's most populated region.

Australia's second-largest city, along with the rest of Victoria state, will lock down for the fifth time since the pandemic began, Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters on Thursday (July 15).

His state has recorded 18 Covid-19 cases since the virus was again seeded there after infected Sydney-based movers delivered furniture to a home in Melbourne, which last year endured one of the world's longest and most strict lockdowns.

"We must do this," Mr Andrews said. "You only get one chance to go hard and go fast. If you wait, if you hesitate, if you doubt, then you will always be looking back wishing you had done more earlier."

Australia's tardy vaccine roll-out - one of the slowest among the 38 OECD nations - has made the country particularly vulnerable to the Delta variant, which has increasingly leaked out of the quarantine system for overseas arrivals.

While economies such as the UK and US are opening up, Australia's international borders remain largely closed, and comparatively small clusters of the coronavirus make even domestic travel difficult as states and territories pull up the drawbridge.

Sydney on Wednesday extended its lockdown until at least July 30. By that time, it will have been isolated from the rest of the nation for five weeks. The nation's most-populous city has recorded more than 900 infections.

Brisbane, the third-largest city, on Wednesday recorded three new infections within its community, stemming from a travelers from Sydney. In response to the outbreak, New Zealand has suspended a travel bubble with New South Wales and Victoria.

About two weeks ago, half of Australia's population was in lockdown. While some of those restrictions have since been lifted, the nation is increasingly exposed to the delta variant's ability to quickly spread after breaching quarantine, particularly during Australia's winter months.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been under pressure to ramp up his conservative government's vaccine program amid criticism from health experts and political rivals that he was too slow in securing enough jabs from a broad-enough range of suppliers.

The rollout has been hit by supply-chain hold-ups from contracted drug-makers, along with increased vaccine hesitancy due to concerns about rare blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca product, one of only two jabs currently on offer.

That's forced Mr Morrison to abandon an early target for full vaccination by October; he now says all Australians will be able to be inoculated by the end of the year.

Lockdowns "should be a last resort", Mr Morrison told reporters in Sydney on Thursday. "But sometimes with the Delta variant you come to that position a lot more quickly than you used to. I think Australians understand that dealing with Covid-19 doesn't come with a rule book."

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Australia is battling to contain an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta virus strain in its largest city, Sydney, where nearly 900 people have been infected. The virus crossed borders into Victoria and South Australia after an infectious team of furniture movers from Sydney visited both states for work.

In South Australia, the authorities have identified a third venue visited by the workers, while two regional towns in New South Wales (NSW), including one near the border with Victoria and about 500km south-west of Sydney, were on alert after the team stopped at service stations.

In NSW, the authorities extended a lockdown in state capital Sydney on Wednesday by at least 14 days after three weeks of initial restrictions failed to quash the country's biggest outbreak of Covid-19 this year.

NSW on Thursday reported 65 locally acquired cases of Covid-19, after Delta spread from an un-vaccinated chauffeur who was infected while transporting airline crew last month.

The tally was down from 97 a day earlier, as total cases in the latest outbreak neared 1,000. Of Thursday's cases, 28 spent time in the community while infectious, state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

With just over 31,400 cases and 912 deaths since the pandemic began, Australia has handled the Covid-19 crisis better than many other developed countries although its sluggish immunisation drive has taken some of the shine off this success.

Just over 12 per cent Australia's adult population of around 20.5 million have been fully vaccinated, with officials pointing to changing medical advice for vaccines and supply constraints.

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