SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Australians' approval of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has fallen to the lowest level since the pandemic began, with voters wearying of virus-induced lockdowns amid his government's tardy vaccine roll-out.
Support for Morrison's handling of the crisis has fallen from 85 per cent in April last year - when his conservative government imposed strict border controls that helped keep virus fatalities to less than 1,000 - to 48 per cent, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper on Monday (Aug 9).
On the question of who would make the better prime minister, which traditionally favours incumbents, Morrison's lead over the opposition's Anthony Albanese also slid to the lowest level since the pandemic began.
Government lawmakers may be getting jittery about the key measure of voters' party preference: Labor maintains a 6-point lead over the ruling coalition, 53 per cent to 47 per cent, ahead of an election due by May.
Albanese has attacked Morrison's handling of the pandemic, blaming the government for failing to adjust the hotel-quarantine system for returning residents, which has seen at least 20 leaks of the delta strain of coronavirus into local communities this year. He also criticised Morrison for not signing sufficient contracts for vaccines with a wide enough range of suppliers.
The government says its vaccine roll-out is ramping up and all adults will be offered a jab this year. Yet in the meantime, Australians remain vulnerable to snap lockdowns, with the nation's two largest cities currently under stay-at-home orders.
While countries such as the US and UK have largely opened up with more than half their populations fully vaccinated, just 17 per cent of Australians have received two jabs, among the lowest levels in the developed world.
Sydney is currently in its seventh week of lockdown, with the race to increase vaccinations now key to prospects for an easing of restrictions as the economic toll of shutdowns mounts.
Delta is placing increased pressure on Australia's so-called "Covid-zero" strategy, which has relied on closed international borders and rigorous testing to eliminate community transmission of the virus.
New South Wales recorded 283 new cases on Monday, the vast bulk in Sydney, after posting a record 319 infections on Saturday.
The creeping spread of the variant into regional areas of the state was highlighted by authorities announcing that Tamworth - an inland city of about 60,000 people that's 250 miles (402km) north of Sydney - will be placed into a seven-day lockdown.
Melbourne recorded 11 new cases on Monday, with regional Victoria state to exit its lockdown from midnight.
Asked whether he was concerned that the Newspoll signaled voters could punish the government over its handling of the pandemic, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said "there are far more important things for us to focus on right now."
Birmingham said lockdowns would still be needed in Australia "to beat the Delta variant and to give us the best chance as a country to maintain our world-leading position in terms of the saving of lives."
The Newspoll survey was conducted among 1,527 voters across Australia from Aug. 4-7.