Sydney’s Virus Cluster Surge Triggers Travel Restrictions

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Sydney is scrambling to contain an outbreak of Covid-19, throwing travel plans into chaos a week out from Australia’s peak summer holiday season as states reimpose restrictions on visitors coming from New South Wales.

Australia’s largest city reported an additional 10 cases on Friday, taking the total cluster on Sydney’s northern beaches to 28, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters on Friday. Before her update, Australian shares had dropped 0.3% after opening as the outbreak stoked investor caution.

“If we get on top of this in the next two or three days, all of us will be able to have a much better Christmas,” Berejiklian said. If that doesn’t happen, “it could mean further restrictions,” she said, adding all of Sydney’s 5 million people should be on high alert.

The state health department has asked the northern beaches region’s 250,000 residents to remain at home as much as possible over the next three days and avoid unnecessary gatherings to assist with contact tracing. The outbreak ends a more than month-long run with limited community transmission in New South Wales state.

The uptick is a concern as many Sydneysiders prepare to travel across the country for the Christmas and New Year holiday period. While most states have reopened their borders in recent weeks, rising infections could see restrictions re-imposed. The Sydney cluster shows the challenges in controlling the virus, even in a nation that has been spared the scale of infections and deaths experienced in Europe and the U.S.

Authorities have been rushing to control the outbreak after a van driver who transported international airline crew at Sydney Airport tested positive. Officials are also conducting extensive contact tracing after two of the people infected failed to self-isolate while awaiting the results of their Covid tests.

After an emergency meeting of state and territory health ministers on Thursday night, almost all moved swiftly in response to the outbreak, with Victoria and the Northern Territory enforcing 14-day quarantines for Northern Beaches residents, while Tasmania has banned all visitors who have visited the region since December 11. Western Australia said Thursday anyone who has arrived from New South Wales on or before this time will be required to self-quarantine and get tested.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg urged states to not to reimpose hard-border restrictions against New South Wales, saying “closed borders cost jobs,” and it was important to keep the momentum going in the economy’s recovery. During the past month, most states and territories have removed the requirement of enforcing visitors to enter a mandatory 14-day quarantine, with Australians traveling freely for the first since the pandemic began in March.

“States should act on the best medical advice and their response should be proportionate and should be targeted,” Frydenberg said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio interview Friday. “New South Wales authorities have a very strong track record in both contact testing and tracing,” he said, calling that state’s record in handling clusters the “gold standard.”

Australia has been able to restrict total Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began to about 28,070 cases as of Thursday. By far the hardest hit state has been Victoria; its capital Melbourne last month emerged from a strict three-month lockdown after a cluster that originated from breaches in its hotel-quarantine system got out of control.

New South Wales, the most populous state, has so far faired relatively well in quickly getting outbreaks under control. It recovered from its biggest threat from the pandemic when the coronavirus-stricken Ruby Princess cruise ship docked in Sydney on March 19 and 2,647 passengers were allowed to disembark, even as dozens of people on board suffered flu-like symptoms.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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