Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), reported a slight rise in COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, while officials tightened curbs and pushed for vaccinations to contain flare-ups of the highly infectious Delta variant.
Australia is fighting the Delta strain, first detected in India, in five of its eight states and territories, since the first case was found in NSW capital Sydney two weeks ago in a limousine driver who transported overseas airline crew.
Worries the strain could touch off major outbreaks have forced lockdowns in three major cities and some form of curbs in several others – affecting more than 20 million Australians, or about 80% of the population.
Queensland is set to impose a snap three-day lockdown in capital Brisbane and some neighbouring regions from Tuesday evening. Perth, capital of Western Australia, began a four-day lockdown starting Tuesday, joining Sydney and Darwin.
“The risk is real and we need to act quickly, we need to go hard, we need to go fast,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said. The state reported two new local cases.
Sydney is under a two-week lockdown until July 9 while the lockdown in the northern city of Darwin was extended for another 72 hours until Friday. An outbreak in Sydney, home to a fifth of Australia’s 25 million population, linked to the Delta variant has grown to nearly 150 cases.
Tough restrictions, including mandatory masks and fewer gatherings, are also in place across Australia.
Australia Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was fined A$200 ($150) by NSW police for not wearing a mask inside a petrol station, media reported, the highest ranking government official to be fined for not complying with COVID-19 rules.
While the police report did not identify Joyce, he confirmed the incident in an interview on Monday with News Corp -owned cable broadcaster Sky News.
NSW reported 19 new locally acquired infections, detected from a record 67,000 tests, versus 18 cases a day ago.
Western Australia reported zero cases while the Northern Territory detected two new cases.
Australia is looking to ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations and has announced mandatory shots for high-risk aged-care workers and employees in quarantine hotels.
It has also made the AstraZeneca (AZN.L) vaccine available to people under the age of 60.
Officials had earlier limited the use of the AstraZeneca shot only to people above 60 due to blood clot worries while recommending Pfizer shots to everyone under 60 in a major change that slowed Australia’s immunisation drive.
Authorities have now said people under 60 could request the AstraZeneca vaccine if approved by their doctors, who will be covered by a no-fault indemnity scheme matching a wider practice seen overseas.
Health officials say the AstraZeneca vaccine offers a high level of protection and its benefits far outweigh any risks.
Lockdowns, contact tracing and strict social distancing rules have helped Australia keep its COVID-19 numbers relatively low, with just over 30,500 cases and 910 deaths, but the Delta variant, according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, presents “very different challenges”.
Neighbouring New Zealand said it would resume quarantine-free travel with South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria states and the Australian Capital Territory next week as it lifted COVID-19 curbs in capital Wellington on Tuesday.
New Zealand halted its “travel bubble” with Australia on Saturday in response to the Sydney outbreak. Social distancing curbs had been imposed in Wellington a week ago after an Australian tourist who visited the city tested positive for COVID-19 after returning home.