Australia’s Victoria state recorded its second-highest day of new Covid-19 infections on Friday as its premier rebuked residents for evading lockdown and raised the prospect of stronger steps to contain the virus.
Victoria – whose capital Melbourne started its second six-week lockdown on July 8 – reported 627 new infections on July 31, down from a record 723 the previous day. The state recorded eight more deaths in the previous 24 hours linked to the coronavirus, including two men in their fifties, also from a record 14 the day before.
The state, which for months prided itself on a tough approach to social distancing measures, now accounts for more than half of Australia’s 198 deaths from the virus and about 60 percent of the country’s 16,900 cases. Most of Victoria’s new cases are in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city.
“It is clear to all of us that these numbers are still far too high,” the region’s premier Daniel Andrews said at a televised news conference.
The state might “need to take further steps”, he continued. “The data will tell us, the experts will tell us what and if any next steps need to be.”
For some residents, the second lockdown is a cause for despair. “People are starting to feel depressed because you can't leave the house,” Melbourne resident Stefan Paskoski told AFP. “All you do is go to work, come home if you're working – if you're unemployed, you rely on government social security.”
Andrews said the city of five million and surrounding areas would be stuck in “limbo” unless they could cut infection rates.
“We’ve stopped it from getting completely out of control […] but we haven't been able to suppress it sufficiently,” Andrews told media.
Without a drop in infections, it was an “absolute certainty” that any rollback of restrictions would see cases spiral out of control, he said.
The resurgence of the virus has been largely blamed on security bungles at hotels used to quarantine international travellers that allowed Covid-19 to leak into the community.
Andrews also blamed the continuing rise in cases on those flouting the rules – including people with the virus leaving their homes instead of quarantining for 14 days. Public health officials and inspections staff on Thursday were absent.
“It’s almost impossible for us to see businesses recover and survive unless and until we get these numbers down,” he said.
Public health workers and members of the Royal Australian Armed Forces in Victoria are carrying out contact-tracing, and going to speak to every positive Covid-19 case in the state but have found one in four people not at home. Those people have been referred to police and may face a fine of 1,652 Australian dollars (€1,002), Andrews said.
Victoria is due to end lockdown on August 19 and is analysing how the virus is being transmitted in the community, which will guide any new restrictions, he added.
‘Complacency can be costly’
“Relaxation of physical distancing measures and social restrictions can lead to resurgence of cases, as can importation of new cases via travellers,” noted Claire Standley, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “The key to controlling these resurgences remains the same tried and true public health measures that are the cornerstone of epidemic response: rapid case identification, including testing, isolation and tracing."
“If these responses are not implemented quickly enough, given the infectiousness of the virus, and particularly its ability to transmit prior to the appearance of symptoms, the rate of new infections can rise fast,” she continued.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the surge in coronavirus cases in Melbourne remained a challenge but he was confident a flare-up in the larger city of Sydney was under control.
“The level of community outbreak and community transmission in Victoria is the great challenge down there,” Morrison told Australia’s 2GB radio. “And there’s still a lot of work to do and we're not on top of it yet.”
New South Wales state, of which Sydney is the capital, had contained the virus mainly because of better contact tracing than in neighbouring Victoria, Morrison said. NSW recorded just 21 new cases.
A ban on people travelling from Sydney to northern Queensland state was meanwhile set to begin at 1 am Saturday local time, and images of traffic queues at the NSW-Queensland border began circulating on social media late on Friday. Sydney is more than 800 kilometres, or 500 miles, from the state border but home to two-thirds of NSW's 7.5 million residents.
“There will be delays at the border so think about your travel plans and think about where you need to go and think about the timing of those journeys,” Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said earlier.
“The lesson from Victoria should be that complacency can be costly,” Standley warned. “Travel between states has contributed to quite a number of new infections (for example, just yesterday a man in Northern Territory tested positive after travelling to Victoria for medical treatment), and while certain states are restricting travel as a result, it's only a partial solution,” she continued. Maintaining vigilance, and ensuring that testing, tracing and isolation capabilities are poised to move quickly when new cases are identified, remains critical.”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)