Sydney Covid-19 lockdown could be eased if vaccination rate hits 50%

People wait in line outside a Covid-19 vaccination centre at Sydney Olympic Park in Sydney on July 14, 2021.
People wait in line outside a Covid-19 vaccination centre at Sydney Olympic Park in Sydney on July 14, 2021.PHOTO: X06366

CANBERRA (REUTERS) - Australia's New South Wales, home to Sydney, said on Tuesday (Aug 3) it could ease a Covid-19 lockdown that demands five million people stay at home until the end of August if 50 per cent of the population is vaccinated, even as new infections linger near a 16-month high.

A lifting of restrictions in New South Wales, the country's most populous state, would be a boost for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under intense pressure for his government's handling of the vaccine roll-out, with the threat of a second economic recession in as many years looming.

New South Wales, which accounts for a third of all activity in Australia's A$2 trillion (S$1.99 trillion) economy, has struggled to contain a surge of cases of the highly infectious Delta variant in Sydney, the country's biggest city, despite the lockdown, currently due to be lifted on Aug 29.

While New South Wales on Tuesday reported another 199 locally acquired Covid-19 cases in the past 24 hours - near a 16-month high of 239 infections recorded in one day last week - state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said curbs could be eased if six million people are vaccinated by the time the lockdown is due to end.

"Six million jabs is roughly half the population with at least one or two doses," Ms Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney. "That gives us additional options as to what life looks like on 29 August."

Ms Berejiklian did not say exactly how many in New South Wales were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, but said the state is on course to meet its vaccination target. She cautioned the number of people in the community while infectious would also need to come down.

Although Australia has largely kept its Covid-19 numbers relatively low, with just over 34,500 cases and 925 deaths, its national vaccination roll-out has hit several roadblocks due to changing medical advice on AstraZeneca doses over blood clot concerns and supply constraints for Pfizer inoculation.

The target in New South Wales comes just days after national premier Morrison promised lockdowns would be "less likely" once the country inoculates 70 per cent of its population above 16 years of age - up from 19 per cent now. Mr Morrison expects to hit the 70 per cent mark by the end of the year.

On Tuesday, Mr Morrison rejected the idea of offering people financial incentives in order to boost vaccination rates. 

"If do have hesitancy about vaccine, I am not going to pay them off," Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra. 

The PM on Tuesday also released the modeling behind the national strategy, showing Australia would need to vaccinate seven in every 10 people to be able to control the spread of the virus without lockdowns that are economically damaging. 

The modelling, by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, also called for younger Australians to be the next focus of the vaccine campaign. 

Once vulnerable Australians were inoculated, "uptake by young adults (aged 16 and over) will strongly influence the impact of vaccination on overall transmission", notes published alongside the modelling said. 

The lockdown of Sydney is expected to see the Australian economy shrink in the current quarter, and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has warned the length of the stay-at-home orders will determine whether a recession can be avoided.

Despite the ongoing threat to the economy, the Reserve Bank of Australia on Tuesday said it would stick with its plan to taper bond buying from September, contravening marketing expectations.

Meanwhile, Queensland state said on Tuesday it has reported 16 new Covid-19 cases in the past 24 hours, the highest daily number of new cases in a year.