Nearly half the Australian population is in lockdown as Victoria joins greater Sydney in enforcing stay-at-home orders to contain a COVID outbreak that has spread from NSW.
Some 6.7 million Victorians have begun their first day of a five-day lockdown that might be extended, while Sydney is bracing for a jump in cases as the virus spread to hospitals and paramedics.
Queensland is also racing to ward off another lockdown, just two weeks after the last one ended, after three worrying local cases on Thursday that prompted a prolonged mask mandate.
Meanwhile, national cabinet will to meet on Friday, with agreement on a deal between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews for federal support for workers for the five-day lockdown at the top of the agenda.
On Thursday, Mr Andrews said he hoped Victoria’s fifth lockdown would be “short” and “sharp” but he could not guarantee it would last only five days.
The lockdown was ordered after Victoria went from zero cases three days ago to 18 cases in total, with most connected to NSW removalists who spread the virus during a drop-off at the Ariele Apartments in Maribyrnong, in Melbourne’s inner-north-west, late last week.
The final straw for authorities was three cases of suspected “stranger-to-stranger transmission” at an AFL match at the MCG last Saturday.
A positive case also attended the international rugby clash between the Wallabies and France at AAMI Park on Tuesday night. Stadium management is working with health officials to identify close contacts.
There are more than 110 exposures sites dotted across Melbourne and regional Victoria, including the MCG and retailers at Chadstone shopping centre.
Despite NSW seeding the outbreak, Mr Andrews would not be drawn on whether Victoria’s lockdown could have been avoided if Sydney had locked down sooner.
“I can’t control what happens and doesn’t happen in NSW,” he said.
“These cases started in NSW, but I’m determined they will end here.”
Mr Andrews said the state’s contact tracers were moving faster than ever but had not been able to keep up with the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant.
“We’ve got no choice. We don’t want this getting away from us and being locked down for months,” he said.
The state government has flagged it could announce a lockdown business support package as early as Friday.
The federal government said on Thursday night it would provide income support through the COVID-19 Disaster Payment scheme for people who work or live in greater Melbourne, Moorabool Shire, City of Greater Geelong, Borough of Queenscliffe and Surf Coast Shire – areas declared COVID-19 hotspots for the purposes of Commonwealth support.
Sydney cases spread to hospitals, aged care
Sydney’s virus outbreak has continued to leak into the city’s health system, with at least 70 paramedics reportedly isolating and cases linked to two major hospitals and an aged-care home.
NSW had 65 new local COVID-19 cases on Thursday, but Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned the number of infected people in the community was yet to decline.
Of the new cases, at least 35 people were out in the community for part or all of their infectious period – a number that authorities want down at zero.
“It has been a stable number, it hasn’t grown … [but] unless it comes down, we can’t get out of lockdown,” Ms Berejiklian said.
Infection numbers continue to rise in south-west Sydney, where testing clinics were inundated this week after essential workers from the Fairfield LGA were ordered to get tested every three days if they work outside the area.
From Friday, about 12,000 teachers and school staff will be prioritised for vaccination at the Fairfield showgrounds hub.
Two of Sydney’s major hospitals are on alert after a nurse and a patient were diagnosed with COVID-19.
A pregnant patient at Liverpool Hospital, in Sydney’s south-west, was diagnosed with COVID on Wednesday after undergoing a procedure, and a vaccinated nurse who worked at Westmead Hospital in the COVID-19 ward has also tested positive.
A paramedic in south-west Sydney has also tested positive to the virus, a NSW Ambulance spokesman confirmed on Thursday night.
At least another two have been diagnosed, according to media reports, forcing at least 70 paramedics into isolation as close contacts.
“NSW Ambulance is investigating reports of further positive cases in paramedics who had no contact with the confirmed case. Urgent contact tracing is underway,” a spokesman said in a statement.
On Thursday night, Minchinbury Manor – an aged-care home in Rooty Hill – confirmed a contract cleaner had been diagnosed with the virus, prompting the centre to lock down as a precaution.
On Thursday, Ms Berejiklian also urged people with COVID symptoms not to visit doctors or pharmacists, saying others had been infected in those settings.
There are 19 patients in intensive care in NSW, with five ventilated.
Queensland on edge
Queensland Health is waiting to see if three new coronavirus cases have seeded other infections, something that could send the state’s south-east into another lockdown.
Chief health officer Jeannette Young warned the state is at serious risk after three new locally acquired cases of COVID-19 on Thursday.
Dr Young said she thought Queensland was dealing with at least one, and possibly two, new outbreaks not linked to cases that sent south-east Queensland and Townsville into a snap three-day lockdown just over a fortnight ago.
She’s most concerned about a worker at Brisbane International Airport, who completed three night shifts on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, while she was infectious and was also active in the community.
The other two cases are a boy, aged 12, who returned from the US and did a stint in hotel quarantine in Sydney with his mother before flying to Brisbane on Qantas flight 544 on last Friday, July 9.
The boy has since tested positive, as has his father, who works on the Sunshine Coast. His mother has returned a negative result so far but is in hospital with her child as a precaution.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said an extension to the mask mandate would help keep south-east Queensland out of what would be a fourth lockdown this year.
Masks will remain mandatory until Friday, July 23.
Meanwhile, Ms Palaszczuk again urged Queenslanders not to travel to NSW or Victoria, and if they are there, and can safety do so, to return home to avoid the prospect of being locked out, should the border close.
Lockdowns cast shadow over national cabinet
National cabinet will meet on Friday to thrash out Mr Morrison’s plans for financial support with a push to get rid of the seven-day lockdown eligibility rule.
The Prime Minister, premiers and chief ministers will also receive an epidemiological update that might show the need for different responses to beat the rapidly spreading variant.
The sluggish vaccine rollout is expected to get a boost with more pharmacies to join also on the national cabinet agenda.
“We’re working with the problem, COVID evolves,” said Mr Morrison on Thursday.
Mr Andrews will argue for support to be paid for the five days of his state’s current lockdown – and not require a lockdown to last a week for workers to qualify.
“We are part of this nation and it’s needs-based – it’s not foreign aid, we are not a different country,” he said.
As the number of delivered vaccine doses rose to 9.63 million, the government revealed it was making progress on getting mRNA vaccines made locally, with an approach-to-market process closing on Friday.
However, Mr Morrison said there were still some issues around intellectual property held by Pfizer and Moderna.
There’s a glut of locally made AstraZeneca because of expert medical advice it be used only for over 60s due to the risk of rare but potentially fatal blood clots.