SYDNEY/MELBOURNE • Lockdown measures are being reimposed in Australia’s second-biggest city, confining Melbourne residents to their homes for six weeks, unless undertaking essential business, as officials scrambled to contain a coronavirus outbreak.
The decision, which affects around 4.9 million people, was announced yesterday, just hours before the busy border between Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, and New South Wales was scheduled to close for the first time in a century.
It is the first such spike in infections in Australia since the virus was believed to have been suppressed countrywide in April, and a brutal reminder that risks remain even as life returns to normal.
From midnight today, everyone in Melbourne must stay home unless travelling to work, studying, shopping for food or attending medical appointments. Restaurants, cafes and bars will be able to provide only takeaway service, gyms and hair salons will be closed, household gatherings will be limited to two people and the current school vacation extended.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said the curbs were onerous but necessary. “I would, with the greatest of respect, put it to you that getting this virus and dying from it is very onerous too,” he said during a televised media conference.
Victoria was responsible for 191 of the 199 new coronavirus cases reported nationally yesterday, the biggest one-day rise since early April.
The spike has worried officials, even though Australia’s total of almost 8,800 coronavirus cases and 106 deaths is far below that of many other nations.
“We have to be clear with each other that this is not over,” Mr Andrews said. “And pretending that it is because we all want it to be over is not the answer. It is indeed part of the problem. A very big part of the problem.”
Mr Andrews had, over the weekend, reinstated strict social distancing orders in more than 30 Melbourne suburbs and put nine public housing towers in complete lockdown due to the recent outbreak.
Hundreds of police officers and army troops were being deployed to enforce the closure of Victoria’s border with New South Wales.
The state line is highly porous, stretching hundreds of kilometres. It is used heavily daily by commuters and schoolchildren, and for road freight.
WAR ON VIRUS NOT OVER
We have to be clear with each other that this is not over. And pretending that it is because we all want it to be over is not the answer. It is indeed part of the problem. A very big part of the problem.
VICTORIA PREMIER DANIEL ANDREWS
People caught crossing the border without permission via any of the 55 roads, or several river and wilderness crossings, will face penalties, including a fine of A$11,000 (S$10,600) and six months’ imprisonment.
A second region in Victoria, where recent Covid-19 cases have been detected and which is home to 44,000 people, will face lockdown curbs similar to Melbourne’s.
The border closure and reintroduction of restrictions in Melbourne deal a blow to Australia’s hopes for a quick economic recovery as it approaches its first recession in nearly three decades, driven partly by social distancing restrictions imposed in March.
For businesses on the border, which last closed during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919, it also poses an immediate logistics headache.
Daily travel permits will be granted to people who live in border towns and cities but the application system was still being developed as the closure was announced.
Mayor Kevin Mack of Albury, a border town on the New South Wales side, said that with an estimated 50,000 car movements across the state line every day, “it will be a nightmare for everyone”.
Mr Paul Armstrong, who runs a petrol station in Wodonga, a border town on the Victorian side, said: “About a quarter of my staff, like me, live in New South Wales, and cross that border every day to come to work. I don’t know if they are going to be able to get in.”
Outside of the border towns, Victoria’s residents will be able to apply for a permit but will need to prove a special need for their travel. Freight transporters will be free to cross the border without a permit, but will be subject to random stops.
Experts have warned that people everywhere will have to get used to the “new normal” of on-and-off restrictions as new clusters of infections emerge and subside. However, there is growing concern that most of Melbourne’s new cases are not directly linked to residents returning from overseas.
“The situation we are in is more serious than in late March, because we have community transmission, which is much harder to track than infection in return travellers,” said Professor Raina MacIntyre, a biosecurity expert at the University of New South Wales. “People all over Australia must accept the gravity of the situation and play their part.”
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS