Sydney police to step up enforcement after Covid-19 record

Pedestrians in the city centre during a lockdown in Sydney, Australia on Aug 9, 2021.
Pedestrians in the city centre during a lockdown in Sydney, Australia on Aug 9, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian authorities on Tuesday (Aug 10) vowed to crank up policing of anti-Covid lockdown rules in Sydney, but dismissed suggestions that tougher measures, including a curfew, were needed after the city reported its biggest single-day new case number yet. With more than five million residents of Australia’s biggest city now in lockdown for more than six weeks, Sydney reported 343 new infections in an outbreak stoked by the spread of the highly transmissible Delta strain of Covid-19, up 66 from the day before and topping the last one-day peak set on Saturday.

Tougher policing in the most-affected areas has divided Sydney and stoked resentment in some of Australia’s most migrant-heavy neighbourhoods. Authorities in New South Wales (NSW) state, home to Sydney, also announced three deaths from the virus, all of them unvaccinated. A total of 357 cases are in hospitals, with 60 in intensive care, 28 of whom require ventilation.

Amid questions about the effectiveness of Sydney’s lockdown, under which residents are supposed to stay at home bar essential movements, NSW authorities said police have been asked to step up checks on how many people were being allowed inside small shops at the same time as they were still seeing “lots of unnecessary movement of people”.

“What I’m concerned about is the crowding in shopping centres and places where we have seen transmission events in small shops,” state Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant told reporters.

Australia's Victoria state also reported a slight rise in new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, raising the prospect of an extended lockdown in Melbourne as officials battle to contain a Delta strain outbreak.

State officials reported 20 new cases, up from 11 a day earlier, and added dozens of new venues to a list of virus-exposed sites in Melbourne, including cafes, supermarkets and fuel service stations.

In line with recent trends, and worrying officials, 15 of the cases were in the community while infectious. Health officials have said the number of people who are in public while infectious needs to be close to zero before lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne are lifted.

Melbourne's lockdown is currently scheduled to end on Thursday and Sydney's at the end of the month. State officials have set a target of six million vaccinations by the end of the month – when the Sydney lockdown is currently scheduled to end – if curbs are to be eased. So far more than 4.5 million total shots have been administered in NSW, with more than 23 per cent of people above 16 fully vaccinated. “This is why we’ve had a sense of urgency about the jab ... because that gives us a chance to see what people can do in September and October,” state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney. Meanwhile NSW officials expanded strict stay-home rules to include two regions near the Queensland border, Byron Bay and Tamworth, late on Monday after visits by infectious people from the city.

With slightly more than 36,700 cases and 942 deaths, Australia has handled the pandemic much better than many other developed economies.

But the fast-moving Delta strain has thrown Australia's reopening plans in disarray as authorities seek to ramp up a vaccination rollout that critics of Prime Minister Scott Morrison have slammed as being too slow and ineffective.

Morrison on Tuesday said Sydney was in a “tough fight” with the Delta variant, and hoped the country would return to near normalcy by the end of this year when all Australians above 16 will be offered at least one vaccine dose under his plan.

“I want Australia to get to Christmas, I want everybody around that table at Christmas time,” Morrison said in Canberra.

As many brace for months of disruption, organisers of the Australian International Airshow at Avalon on Tuesday cancelled the biennial show scheduled for November due to “increased uncertainty created by the impacts of the Delta variant”. The show had already been postponed from February.

In the nearer term, NSW officials have set a target of six million vaccinations by the end of the month – when the Sydney lockdown is currently scheduled to end – if curbs are to be eased. So far more than 4.5 million total shots have been administered, with more than 23 per cent of people above 16 fully vaccinated, slightly higher than the national numbers.

“This is why we’ve had a sense of urgency about the jab...because that gives us a chance to see what people can do in September and October,” state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

Economists expect the lockdowns in its two largest cities to have tipped the country's A$2 trillion (S$1.9 trillion) economy into a second recession in as many years.

"There are big challenges for the economy, but I want people... to be confident, to be optimistic and to know there is going to be light at the end of the tunnel," Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told broadcaster Seven News on Tuesday.