SYDNEY, Australia: Thousands of Sydney residents have been told to stay home after a new outbreak of coronavirus ended a two-week run of no local cases.
Australian authorities are scrambling to trace the source of the infection, which has been found in 28 cases across the city’s northern beaches region.
The New South Wales (NSW) government has urged all locals to wear masks in public areas and to be on “high alert”.
Residents now face curbs on travel to the country’s other states.
The new cluster has sparked nation-wide concerns and cast uncertainty over many Australians’ plans for a relatively normal Christmas.
About 250,000 people live in Sydney’s northern beaches – they have been asked to stay home until Monday and to get tested if they have symptoms.
Others have been told to avoid the area and to use a mask when on public transport and in public spaces including supermarkets and churches.
Unlike in Melbourne, mask-wearing has not been a common practice in Sydney in recent months due to the low rate of infection.
But NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian urged the city’s five million residents to be “extra Covid-safe” and to reconsider their social activities and movements.
“If we get on top of this in the next two or three days, all of us will have a much better Christmas,” she told reporters on Friday.
“But if we don’t… it could mean further restrictions down the track,” she added.
She said that constituted a “proportional” response for now, but added: “I don’t want to underestimate how serious the current outbreak is.”
The Northern Beaches coronavirus outbreak has had nationwide repercussions on the movement of Australians just a week out from the busy Christmas tourist season, with fears the virus could further spread in the community.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke on Friday about the outbreak, urging Australians to remain calm and follow local advice, while state and territory leaders have introduced new levels of restrictions for people who have recently been to the area.
Morrison said there would be constraints on movement as a result of “the events in the last 24 hours”, but he said past outbreaks have shown limitations can be eased once further information is known.
“My message to the public more broadly is to remain calm and follow that advice,” he said.
“That’s what Australians have done, by and large, throughout the course of the year.”
In light of panicked travellers at Sydney Airport attempting to cross borders before they are blocked from entering other states, Mr Morrison was asked about imposing a national standard on hotspots to prevent further panic.
Morrison said states and territories had not agreed to a national standard and the federal government had no authority to impose such a measure.
The possibility of bringing forward the approval and distribution of vaccines to Australians in light of the outbreak was put to the prime minister.
Morrison said he wouldn’t be making “hasty decisions on people’s health” by becoming “distracted by the events of the day”.
“The vaccine is critically important to the country, and we will be making sure that, when it finally receives approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration by Professor Skerritt, it’ll be done in accordance with all the requirements that he and his group require,” Mr Morrison said.
“That way, I can say to Australians that, if he gives it the tick, you can get the jab.”
In recent months, authorities nationally have lifted most restrictions on daily life and reopened internal borders as Australia beat its second wave – which was centred in Melbourne.
But in response to Sydney’s outbreak, several states have begun reinstating bans or quarantine restrictions on travellers from the Northern Beaches region.
Western Australia also announced an even broader two-week quarantine order for all those arriving from NSW.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he had seen an “avalanche” of complacency in Sydney in recent weeks.
“This cluster serves as a timely reminder to all of that we are still in the middle of a worldwide Covid pandemic,” he said.
Tests have shown that the Northern Beaches outbreak is similar to a strain of Covid-19 found recently in quarantined travellers, state officials said.
They said it had spread after one couple failed to isolate at home while awaiting Covid-19 test results.
Their December 11 visit to a popular lawn bowls club and pub in the Northern Beaches suburb of Avalon has now been identified as the “super spreader” event.
However, it’s unclear how the couple – who hadn’t travelled overseas – became infected.
How did states react to fresh Covid-19 outbreak?
New South Wales
If the Northern Beaches outbreak is not brought under control, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian says further restrictions could come into effect in the state.
Victoria responded to the outbreak by effectively closing its border to residents of the Northern Beaches or people who have been exposed to high-risk sites in NSW from midnight Friday.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk responded to the outbreak by declaring the Northern Beaches a coronavirus hotspot.
WA implemented mandatory 14-day isolation for anyone entering NSW from today. But the state has flagged it could implement even tougher measures.
South Australia has kept its border open with NSW, but has reintroduced an application process for travellers from all states hoping to enter its borders.
The application process will include a question on whether anyone has been in Sydney’s Northern Beaches since December 11.
Australian Capital Territory
Canberra residents have also been told to reconsider travel to Sydney as the Northern Beaches outbreak grows.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith says it would be a “terrible” idea to travel to the Northern Beaches.
Anyone arriving from the area into the NT from 12:01am Friday are required to go into supervised quarantine for 14 days for $2,500.
Tasmania Premier Peter Gutwein says the outbreak in NSW was “causing some concern” even though Tasmania would be keeping its borders open to the state for the time being.