Almost half of Aussie population under lockdown

An empty street in the central business district of Sydney on June 29, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - Almost half of Australia's population has been placed under lockdown as authorities face Covid-19 clusters in multiple cities across the country for the first time since the initial outbreak last year.

As the cluster in Sydney grew to 149 cases, authorities in Brisbane and Perth imposed snap lockdowns of three and four days, respectively. Sydney is in a two-week lockdown while Darwin is in a lockdown that is due to end on Friday (July 2).

The measures, including parts of regional Queensland, left more than 40 per cent of Australia's 25.7 million residents under stay-home orders. States have also imposed various travel bans to restrict entry from hotspots.

As authorities struggled to contain the various clusters, the federal and state governments have faced questions about their handling of the pandemic, including the slow pace of the vaccination roll-out and a failure to ensure vaccinations for all workers, who have contact with international arrivals and Covid-19 patients.

As of Tuesday (June 29), just 3.4 per cent of the population had been fully vaccinated and 26 per cent had received one dose.

Several state leaders have criticised the federal government's management of the roll-out.

In the most populous state of New South Wales, the premier Gladys Berejiklian said further sudden lockdowns would be needed until vaccination rates increase.

"Until at least 80 per cent of our adult population is vaccinated, we can't have a conversation about what Covid normal looks like," she said.

Meanwhile, in Queensland and Victoria, state leaders urged the federal government to further limit the number of foreign arrivals. Currently, only Australian citizens and residents can enter but there are caps on weekly numbers.

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk called for a "massive reduction" in arrivals, saying quarantine facilities were being overloaded.

"The reason why we're having lockdowns in major cities is because the overseas arrivals are bringing the virus here," she said. "They're going to hotels and all of our staff are having to deal with it."

She was also angry that a clerical employee at a hospital, who became infected after working near the Covid-19 ward, had not been vaccinated.

"I am absolutely furious about this," she said. "We need to make sure that we are getting a population vaccinated right across the state."

Since an initial nationwide lockdown last year, Australia has been largely free of Covid-19, aside from two serious outbreaks in Melbourne. But the current outbreak, which involves the highly contagious Delta strain, has been fast-moving and has led to cases popping up across the mainland.

Ms Berejiklian has defended her decision to wait until last Friday to impose a citywide lockdown in Sydney, which had not had such a large-scale lockdown since the first wave of cases last year.

New South Wales deputy premier John Barilaro, who is in isolation after coming into contact with an infected MP, admitted Tuesday that authorities had "lost control" of the outbreak but insisted the government had acted on medical advice.

"Hindsight is a beautiful thing," he said. "Throughout these 18 months, we've relied heavily on (official medical advice) and the advice has not led us astray. But this is very different, the way it's spread."

Australia has recorded 30,560 cases and just 910 deaths, marking one of the world's most successful efforts in combating Covid-19.

Outside Sydney, authorities recorded four new cases on Tuesday, including one each in Queensland and Western Australia, and two in the Northern Territory.

For many of Sydney's 5.4 million residents, the fresh lockdown has brought a sudden end to a year of carefree living with minimal restrictions, but residents have been largely supportive of the move, with many rushing to undergo testing. On Monday alone, about 67,000 people were tested.

Remote video URL

But the return to lockdown has placed pressure on Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to step up the national vaccination programme. On Monday, he announced mandatory vaccines for aged care workers and allowed AstraZeneca doses to be given to people aged under 60 who request it.

The federal government was slow with its initial roll-out, preferring to observe programmes in other countries which had been hard hit by the pandemic.

A Newspoll opinion survey published on Tuesday found support for Mr Morrison's handling of the pandemic had dropped from 70 per cent to 61 per cent since April. The number of people who said his handling had been poor increased from 27 per cent to 36 per cent, with the rest undecided.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.