Australia’s Second-Largest City Re-Enters 6-Week Virus Lockdown
A health worker conducts a swab test at a drive-in Covid-19 testing site set up at the Melbourne Show Grounds in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. (Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg)

Australia’s Second-Largest City Re-Enters 6-Week Virus Lockdown

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Australia’s second-largest city will be locked down for six weeks as a coronavirus outbreak risks triggering a second wave of infections in the nation.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said from midnight Wednesday people across metropolitan Melbourne must stay home except for work, essential services, medical treatment or school -- returning to restrictions that were lifted weeks ago across the country.

The state recorded 191 new cases overnight, its biggest daily increase since the crisis began. The virus has taken took root in several Melbourne neighborhoods, leading to a level of community transmission previously unseen in Australia.

“These are unsustainably high numbers of new cases,” Andrews told reporters. At such levels it is impossible to “suppress and contain this virus without taking significant steps.”

The renewed lockdown dashes the hopes of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who’d aimed for most social-distancing restrictions across the nation and border closures to be lifted by the end of July in a bid to revive the crippled economy.

The Victoria outbreak risks deepening and prolonging the nation’s first recession in almost three decades, while wearying Australians who’d hoped the first wave of restrictions imposed in late March had crushed the infection curve.

The Australian dollar fell 0.2% to 69.57 U.S. after the announcement, while the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index hit a session low.

Melbourne’s drastic move comes as parts of the U.S. persist with re-opening the economy, despite spiraling case numbers. It highlights how approaches to mitigating the virus have diverged, with some American cities allowing businesses and social activities to resume even as they record daily infection numbers many times Melbourne’s tally.

“The overall recovery of the Australian economy is expected to be significantly hindered by the second lockdown,” IBISWorld said in an emailed statement on Tuesday, pointing out that Victoria contributed almost 24% to the nation’s gross domestic product in fiscal 2019.

Victoria’s northern neighbor New South Wales will shutter their shared border from midnight to prevent the spread of the virus -- the first such closure since the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic.

Australia’s Second-Largest City Re-Enters 6-Week Virus Lockdown

The lockdown across metropolitan Melbourne is an escalation of the state’s response, after it recorded more than two weeks of double-digit daily increases in case numbers.

In recent days, authorities have ordered residents in 12 of the city’s poorer and more multicultural suburbs to stay at home except for work and essential shopping. At the weekend, about 3,000 residents of public-housing tower blocks were barred from leaving their apartments even for food -- reminiscent of the stringent controls imposed in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

In the Asian region, where the virus hit first, countries have favored a mix of lockdowns, mask-wearing, travel curbs and extensive test and tracing measures that have largely worked at containing outbreaks.

While Australia has been one of the standout performers globally in limiting the spread of the virus to less than 9,000 cases, Victoria’s flare-up shows just how hard it will be to eradicate without a vaccine.

“I know there will be enormous amounts of damage that will be done because of this,” Andrews told reporters. “But we can’t pretend it’s over. It is not over in so many parts of the world and it is not over in metropolitan Melbourne and to a certain extent right across Victoria.”

Authorities are probing alleged security lapses at Melbourne hotels used to quarantine overseas arrivals, including claims guards slept with guests, amid concerns the breaches have contributed to the spike in infections. Unlike most states and territories which enlisted their police forces to regulate the quarantine, Victoria contracted out the task to security firms.

Much of Australia hasn’t recorded cases of community transmission for weeks and most restrictions have been eased or lifted entirely. Other states and territories are barring Victorian residents from entering in an effort to preserve their hard-won gains against the virus.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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