Australia's capital Canberra to enter Covid-19 lockdown

Workers at a bar pack up their seats and heating equipment ahead of a lockdown in Canberra, on Aug 12, 2021.
Workers at a bar pack up their seats and heating equipment ahead of a lockdown in Canberra, on Aug 12, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP, REUTERS) - Australia’s capital Canberra was ordered into a seven-day lockdown on Thursday (Aug 12) after a single Covid-19 case was detected in the city, which has largely avoided virus restrictions.

About 400,000 people in the nation’s political hub will be under stay-home orders from 5pm local time (3pm Singapore time), joining millions more already under lockdown in Australia’s south-east.

“This is the most serious public health risk that we are facing in the territory this year - really, since the beginning of the pandemic,” Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr said.

He added that the Covid-19-positive person had been in the community while infectious.

Authorities also appealed to residents to avoid panic buying, as stores began to fill with maskless shoppers shortly after the announcement.

“There is no need for panic buying. And our key message to people is please be patient, be kind with one another, and be thoughtful, said the capital’s health minister Rachel Stephens-Smith.

Canberra has not been in lockdown since a nationwide shutdown in the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.

After months of pursuing a “Covid-zero” strategy, Australia is struggling to contain multiple outbreaks of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus.

More than 10 million people in the country’s biggest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, are currently in lockdown as the authorities try to bring case numbers down.

Much of western New South Wales state was also placed under lockdown late on Wednesday, amid concerns for a sizeable indigenous population feared more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“I ask all our Aboriginal community as well to please stay at home, come forward for a test if you have symptoms and, of course, please get vaccinated with any available vaccine as soon as you can,” New South Wales deputy chief health officer Marianne Gale said.

In Sydney, the epicentre of the outbreak, almost 6,500 cases and 36 deaths have been recorded since a cluster emerged in mid-June. The city is expected to spend at least nine weeks under stay-home orders, with several hot spot suburbs placed under harsher restrictions on Thursday.

Police in Sydney will be given greater powers to enforce lockdown orders, with additional military support to stem a growing outbreak of the Delta variant, The Australian newspaper reported on Thursday.

Police officers on patrol at Bondi Beach in Sydney on Aug 11, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

With the outbreak growing by the day despite seven weeks of lockdown, police would be empowered to stop residents using loopholes in restrictions to travel outside the city, the newspaper reported.

The move comes after several outbreaks in regional towns across New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, raising fears that the virus is spreading out of control.

About 300 unarmed military personnel are already helping the police to enforce home-quarantine orders on affected households in the worst-affected suburbs of Sydney, Australia's most populous city.

A significant number of additional troops would be sent to beef up the operation, The Australian reported, without providing numbers.

Despite the stay-home orders, daily infections in the New South Wales state continue to hit record highs - 345 were reported on Thursday - and several regional towns have also been forced into snap lockdowns.

Neighbouring Victoria state on Thursday reported 21 new locally acquired cases, up from 20 a day earlier as five million residents of Melbourne, the state capital, prepare to enter a second week of lockdown.

Of the new cases, six spent time outdoors while infectious, a number that the authorities have said must return to near zero before restrictions can be eased.

The authorities on Wednesday extended the lockdown in Melbourne for another seven days until Aug 19.

Australia won global praise for its successful coronavirus response in the early stages of the pandemic, and most of the country was enjoying few restrictions by late 2020.

But a glacial vaccination roll-out has been no match for the Delta variant, leaving cities and towns reliant on repeated lockdowns as they attempt to stamp out the virus.

Only around 24 per cent of people above 16 years of age are fully vaccinated, and experts see Australia heading into a cycle of stop-and-start lockdowns until a higher vaccination coverage is reached.

The nation has recorded more than 37,500 cases of Covid-19 and 946 related deaths to date in a population of 25 million.