Sydney tightens lockdown as Australia's Covid-19 cases rise

The tightened curbs come amid the number of new Covid-19 cases that kept rising three weeks into a citywide lockdown. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The Australian city of Sydney on Saturday (July 17) ordered a shutdown of building sites, banned non-essential retail and threatened fines for employers who make staff come into the office, as the number of new Covid-19 cases kept rising three weeks into a citywide lockdown.

The authorities in New South Wales (NSW) state, of which Sydney is the capital, also banned hundreds of thousands of people in the city's western suburbs - the worst affected area - from leaving their immediate neighbourhoods for work, as they recorded 111 new cases in the prior 24 hours, up from 97 the day before.

The state also recorded an additional death from the virus, taking the total to three since the start of the year and the national total to 913 since the pandemic began.

"I can't remember a time when our state has been challenged to such an extent," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told a televised news conference.

The city of five million people, Australia's largest, has been under lockdown since June 26, with a planned end date of July 30, after an airport transit driver brought the virus into the community and sparked an outbreak of the highly infectious variant, according to the authorities.

More than 1,000 people in the city and surrounding districts have since tested positive. Of most concern to health leaders is the number of infectious people who are active in the community that remained at 29 on Saturday, in line with previous days.

"We are chasing our tail in terms of the cases," state Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said at the news conference.

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys said the "tempo of the police response will increase" across Greater Sydney and regional areas.

Stores that can remain open in Sydney include supermarkets, pharmacies and hardware outlets. All building work must stop until the July 30 deadline including cleaning, property maintenance and home renovation, the authorities said.

People who lived in three of Sydney's local government districts - with a total population of 612,000 - were banned from leaving their district for work unless they were emergency workers.

The city already has a working-from-home directive for businesses, but employers who told staff to attend the office would be fined A$10,000 (S$10,040), they said.

Neighbouring Victoria state also reported a jump in daily Covid-19 cases to 19, from six the previous day, raising fears it may extend a short lockdown that was scheduled to end on Tuesday.

Victoria and Greater Sydney have a combined population of about 12 million people, meaning nearly half of Australia's population is under some form of lockdown.

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Neighbouring Victoria state also reported a jump in daily Covid-19 cases to 19, from six the previous day, raising fears it may extend a short lockdown that was scheduled to end on Tuesday.

The state of seven million people on Thursday joined the five million residents of Sydney city - accounting for nearly half Australia's population - by going into lockdown after a flare-up of the coronavirus.

Australia avoided the high infection and fatality numbers of many other countries in the initial stages of the pandemic due to an assertive response that included closing borders, stay-home orders and economic stimulus measures.

But a year and a half on, the federal government is under pressure due a sluggish vaccine roll-out blamed by some experts on changing regulatory advice for the AstraZeneca vaccine and limited supply of Pfizer shots.

Just more than 10 per cent of Australia's 25 million people are fully vaccinated, according to government data, a fraction of the rates in the United States and Britain.

Even so, Australia's death rate from the coronavirus, just more than 900 deaths out of about 31,500 cases, is still low by comparison.

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