By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The premier of Australia's second-most populous state, Victoria, defended on Sunday his decision to put nine public housing towers in a complete lockdown as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Melbourne's suburbs.
The state recorded 74 cases new cases on Sunday, after Saturday's 108 cases prompted Premier Daniel Andrews to order about 3,000 people not to leave their homes for at least five days and to place police to guard the buildings.
"This is not going to be a pleasant experience for those residents, but I have a message for those residents: this is not about punishment but protection," Andrews said in a televised conference.
Promising two weeks of free rent and hardship payments to the residents, Andrews said public health workers would test every resident of the buildings, except those who have previously tested positive.
The communal nature of the facilities, which house people on low incomes, has "genuinely explosive potential for the spread of the virus," said Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.
In addition to the complete lockdown orders, more than 30 Melbourne suburbs are also under strict social-distancing orders, but people there can leave their houses to go to work, school or to buy groceries.
Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, reported 14 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, all returning travellers from overseas.
Overall, Australia has weathered the coronavirus pandemic better than most other nations, with just over 8,400 cases and 104 deaths so far, but the recent spike in Victoria is being closely watched by the rest of the country, which has moved to ease restrictions.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by William Mallard)