(Bloomberg) — Melbourne, the Australian city that’s already endured one of the world’s longest and most stringent lockdowns, is ordering residents to stay home for the fourth time since the pandemic began as the return of infections tests the country’s zero-tolerance approach to the virus.
The city of 5 million people, along with all other areas of Victoria state, will go into lockdown from midnight for seven days, acting Premier James Merlino told reporters in Melbourne on Thursday. The number of cases within the community had doubled in the past day to 26, he said.
“Our public health experts’ primary concern is how fast this variant is moving,” Merlino said, describing the strain of the virus as highly infectious. “We’ve seen overseas how difficult that movement can be to control.”
Genome sequencing has confirmed the cases are from the variant that was first detected in India, and are linked to a leak earlier this month from a hotel used for quarantine in South Australia state. Since then, the virus has spread to neighboring Victoria, with infected people visiting dozens of venues including football stadiums hosting thousands of spectators, a university and a regional city.
The new outbreak shows that Australia’s success in eliminating the virus locally is increasingly becoming a straitjacket. As other developed economies like the U.S and U.K rapidly re-open after widespread vaccination programs — even as new cases continue to emerge — lagging inoculation drives and intolerance of any small flareup risk further isolating these “Covid-Zero” havens.
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Australia, like other places including Taiwan and New Zealand, are far behind in vaccination due to a combination of lack of supply and hesitation from people who don’t feel a health threat from Covid-19, given the small number of infections. Compounding the situation are government officials who react aggressively to single or double-digit outbreaks that are a fraction of that being reported elsewhere, placing populations in stop-start lockdown cycles.
These places, which also include Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China, now risk being left behind as other parts of the world accept Covid-19 is endemic and move on. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has indicated Australia’s vaccination program won’t be completed until well into 2022, and is insisting the country will need to keep international borders closed until then.
Some Australian states and territories have already closed their borders to Melbourne residents, which is expected to place further pressure on the tourism and travel industries, as well as internal trade flows.
The equity market largely shrugged off news of the lockdown, with Australia’s benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index little changed in early afternoon trading.
The cluster comes as Morrison’s government faces increasing pressure to speed up the pace of the vaccine rollout, with about 3.7 million people in the nation of 26 million so far receiving their first jab.
The government initially expected inoculations to be largely complete by October, though the timeline has been pushed back because of medical complications tied to the AstraZeneca Plc shot, which have also deterred some Australians from lining up for the shot.
Australia has been largely successful in controlling the virus through rigorous testing and contact tracing and by closing its international border to non-residents — other than a new travel bubble with New Zealand. That nation this week suspended travel with Victoria.
But while day-to-day life for Australians has largely returned to normal this year, cases have sometimes leaked into the community from hotels where returned overseas travelers have been quarantining, triggering localized lockdowns.
The Labor opposition has criticized keeping the hotel quarantine system in place, instead of building purpose-built quarantine hubs. It says the Melbourne outbreak is the 17th time the virus has escaped from a hotel in the past six months, and is placing the blame on Morrison’s quarantine and vaccination policies.
“We are dealing with these outbreaks almost every week or two and they’re having an enormous impact,” Labor’s health spokesman Mark Butler said in a radio interview Thursday. The nation’s “hotel system was built for tourism, not medical quarantine.”
Restrictions enacted Thursday on people in Victoria, the nation’s second most-populous state, include staying within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of their homes for shopping and exercise, and mandatory mask-wearing in public.
Restaurants, pubs and cafes will only be able to provide takeout goods; otherwise, retail businesses, entertainment and gyms will be closed. Professional sporting events will proceed without crowds.
Asked whether the slower vaccine rollout had jeopardized the health of Australians, Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a television interview Monday that “we are safe.”
“If you could be anywhere else in the world, where would you rather be, or would you rather be in Australia?” Hunt said. “And the reason why is because we’ve followed the advice and we’ve done things rapidly, but we’ve done them carefully.”