Sydney and some surrounding areas will enter a hard two-week Covid-19 lockdown on Saturday as authorities struggle to control a fast-spreading outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant that has grown to at least 80 cases.
More than a million people in downtown Sydney and the eastern suburbs of Australia's biggest city were already under lockdown due to the outbreak, but health authorities said they needed to expand the curbs after more infections were recorded, with exposure sites increasing beyond the initial areas of concern.
"Even though we don't want to impose burdens unless we absolutely have to, unfortunately this is a situation where we have to," said New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
"There was no point doing it for three days or five days because it wouldn't have done the job," Berejiklian told a news briefing.
Her conservative state government was reluctant to impose the lockdown, but a growing number of health experts called for it, as Australia remains largely unvaccinated.
Australia-New Zealand travel bubble bursts
Neighbouring New Zealand announced a three-day suspension of its quarantine-free travel arrangement with Australia on Saturday, with Wellington citing "multiple" outbreaks of Covid-19 in the larger country.
"Given the high level of transmissibility of what appears to be the Delta variant, and the fact that there are now multiple community clusters (in Australia), it is the right thing to do to keep Covid-19 out of New Zealand," said New Zealand's Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
He added that the suspension of the trans-Tasman travel bubble would give officials time to consider measures "to make the bubble safer, such as pre-departure testing for all flights" between the two countries.
New Zealand has previously paused the bubble arrangement five times with individual states in Australia, but this is the first time it has put a blanket halt to quarantine-free travel from the entire country.
Both countries have been among the world's most successful in containing Covid-19. New Zealand has recorded just 26 Covid-19 deaths in a population of 5 million, and Australia has had fewer than 1,000 deaths in a population of 25 million.
Struggle with vaccine rollout
Australia has been more successful in managing the pandemic than many other advanced economies managed the pandemic through swift border closures, social-distancing rules and high compliance, reporting just over 30,400 cases and 910 Covid-19 deaths from the virus.
But the country has struggled with its vaccination rollout, and states have been plagued in recent months by small outbreaks. These have been contained through speedy contact tracing, isolation of thousands of people at a time or snap hard lockdowns.
Saturday's lockdown in New South Wales will also include the regions of Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Wollongong, which surround Sydney.
Under the rules in place through to July 9, people can leave home for essential work, medical care, education or shopping. The rest of the state will have limits on public gatherings and masks will be obligatory indoors.
On Saturday, the case of a worker at the Granites gold mine in the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory prompted the territory's authorities to order the isolation of more than 1,600 people in three states who had had contact with the worker.
The mine, owned by Newmont Corp, was put into lockdown.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)