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Picture: 123RF/FORBUSI
Picture: 123RF/FORBUSI

About two-thirds of Australia’s population is in lockdown as the Delta variant spreads across the nation, with authorities in Melbourne enforcing stay-at-home orders for the sixth time since the pandemic began.

Melbourne and the rest of Victoria state will enter a seven-day lockdown from 8pm local time on Thursday after eight new infections were detected in the past day, premier Daniel Andrews told reporters. Sydney, meanwhile, has issued stay-at-home orders until at least August 28.

“There are no alternatives,” said Andrews, who in 2020 presided over one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns in Melbourne, which only emerged from its most recent round on July 28. “If you wait, it will spread. And once it spreads, you can never even hope to run alongside it, let alone get out in front of it and bring it back down to zero.”

The lockdowns show the limits of Australia’s so-called “Covid-zero” strategy, which has relied on closed international borders and rigorous testing to eliminate community transmission of the virus. Its economy, particularly the domestic tourism and retail sectors, is increasingly being hit by the outbreaks.

The move by Melbourne authorities comes on the same day that New South Wales state reported 262 new infections — a record number since the highly contagious variant leaked into Sydney’s community in mid-June. Five more people died, and four of them weren’t vaccinated, premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in the city, which has been in lockdown for almost six weeks.

The outbreak’s spread to other regions of New South Wales saw Berejiklian on Thursday announce that the Hunter Valley region — including Newcastle, a city of about 500,000 people — will be placed into a one-week lockdown.

“Every jurisdiction around the world is finding Delta challenging,” Berejiklian said. “We can try and eliminate it but we know the vaccine is critical to stopping the spread.”

Australia’s federal government said last week the country would begin reopening and start to avoid snap lockdowns once 70% of the entire adult population had been fully vaccinated. Plans to reopen have been hampered by a tardy vaccine rollout, with only enough doses to cover 25% of the population administered.

Slow vaccine rollout

Even as other developed economies like the US and UK open up, Australia is further isolating after imposing strict border restrictions when the pandemic began early in 2020.

The slow vaccine drive, which has placed renewed criticism on Prime Minister Scott Morrison ahead of elections due by May, has made it particularly vulnerable to the Delta variant, which is increasingly leaking out of the quarantine system for international arrivals.

Queensland state recorded 16 new cases in the community on Thursday, and it was unclear whether Brisbane and other regions there would exit lockdown as planned on Sunday. Eleven other infections were detected aboard a LNG tanker off the city of Gladstone, authorities said.

“The Delta variant moves with lightning speed,” Andrews said. Should state authorities act too slowly, “we are locked down until Christmas — we are locked down until we get 80% of people through the vaccination programme.”

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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