Sydney's Covid-19 cases ease but lockdown extension still looms

The Sydney outbreak has been expanding rapidly despite the city entering its third week of lockdown. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian authorities reported a slight easing in new Covid-19 cases in Sydney on Tuesday (July 13), but left open the possibility of extending a lockdown in the country's largest city to douse an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant.

New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned the harbour city's more than 5 million residents not to become complacent as she reported 89 new locally transmitted cases, down from Monday's record high for the year of 112 cases.

"One day is not a trend, the numbers will keep bouncing around," Berejiklian said in a televised news conference.

Alarming health officials, the outbreak was showing early signs of spreading further afield.

One of the New South Wales cases was in Goulburn, a regional centre 200km from Sydney that had not recorded a case in a year. Neighbouring Victoria state reported three new cases, its first in almost two weeks, in a family who had returned to Melbourne from a visit to New South Wales.

Authorities also reported the death of a man in his 70s, the second Covid-19 death in the country this year after a woman in her 90s died in recent days.

Most concerning to health officials was the fact that many people were moving around in the community while infectious, a trend that is likely to see Sydney's lockdown extend beyond the scheduled end date of Friday.

Berejiklian has made clear that a decision on whether to extend Sydney's three-week lockdown, due to end on Friday, will depend on how many people were found to be out in the community while infectious.

Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said at least 21 of the cases reported on Tuesday were people who were out in the community while infectious. That number was likely to rise as officials determined the isolation status for another 14 cases, she said.

"This is still too many people in the community that are infectious," Chant said.

Berejiklian has repeatedly said that underlying number needs to be close to zero to lift lockdown measures. On Tuesday, she said residents could expect an update on whether the lockdown would be extended by Thursday.

Outbreak hotspots across the city now number in the hundreds, including apartment blocks, homeware stores, health clinics, a bank and a butcher.

An apartment building in the beachfront suburb of Bondi was locked down under police guard after eight occupants tested positive, while Inc temporarily closed its main Sydney distribution centre after two workers tested positive.

People in the outer-city government area of Fairfield, the epicentre of the outbreak, were ordered to get tested every three days if they travelled outside the area for work.

"It's not a bad idea to protect yourself anyway," said Phannarith Ing, who runs a small building company and frequently leaves the area for jobs.

"I don't mind doing the test, it's just part and parcel of having to travel across to the job that needs to be done. What choice do we have?"

Financial support

Snap lockdowns, speedy contact tracing and tough social distancing rules have helped Australia keep Covid-19 numbers lower than many other developed countries, with just over 31,300 cases and 912 deaths.

However, the Sydney outbreak is growing rapidly. Infections neared 800 on Tuesday, less than a month since the first was detected in a limousine driver who transported overseas airline crew.

Both Victoria and South Australia states have ramped up precautions, including enforcing quarantine measures and closing domestic borders, to stop the virus spreading there.

Officials were hastily retracing the movements of a trio of Sydney-based furniture removalists who worked in both neighbouring states while infectious.

Residents of an apartment block in Melbourne, the Victoria capital, were ordered to self-isolate after the group collected furniture from one of the apartments.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under pressure due to a sluggish vaccination rollout, said the federal government was upping a relief payment to A$600 (S$607) per week from A$500 for people who lose more than 20 hours a week of work, as well as payroll support for companies with marked revenue declines.

"The NSW outbreak has proved to be more severe, more dangerous, and it's in the national interest that we now put in place an upgraded set of arrangements," Morrison said.

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