Delta Placing Australia’s Covid-Zero Strategy at Breaking Point

Australian authorities are ramping up lockdown restrictions and extending stay-at-home orders in a bid to beat down a spread in the delta-variant that’s creating the nation’s most serious Covid-19 crisis since the pandemic began.

With the strain spreading hundreds of miles from its epicenter in Sydney, which on Monday suffered the bulk of New South Wales’ record 478 new cases as well as at least seven more deaths, other cities are further bunkering down.

The crisis shows Australia’s so-called “Covid Zero” strategy, which has relied on closed international borders and rigorous testing to eliminate community transmission of the virus, is close to breaking point.

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Melbourne authorities said they will implement a nightly curfew and place more restrictions on outdoor exercise and construction; the city’s sixth lockdown since the pandemic began will also be extended for at least another two weeks.

“I don’t want us to finish up like Sydney, where it has fundamentally got away from them,” Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said in Melbourne, which detected 22 new cases on Monday. “They are locked in until they get pretty much the whole place vaccinated -- that will take months.”

National capital Canberra on Monday announced its stay-at-home orders will be extended until at least Sept. 2 after recording 19 new cases, up from just one the day before.

Meanwhile, the tropical northern city of Darwin has entered a snap three-day lockdown as the delta strain reaches remote regions with large populations of vulnerable Indigenous peoples. Western New South Wales recorded 35 new infections on Monday, with most of them feared to be from First Nations communities.

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Pandemic fatigue

Even as authorities race to boost a tardy vaccination rollout, more than half the nation’s population of 26 million people are now under lockdown, with authorities such as Andrews blaming pandemic fatigue for a wave of non-compliance that’s further spreading the virus.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who earlier this year frequently contrasted Australia’s often coronavirus-free status with the plight of other countries suffering huge outbreaks, is now signaling the nation’s Covid Zero strategy is over, even as some states isolate themselves through domestic borders in a bid to keep the virus out.

“It has never been the job to get to zero covid,” Morrison said in a television interview on Monday. “Seeking to minimize community cases, cases transmitted in the community, of course has been a goal. But the idea that you have zero covid in any country has never been Australia’s plan.”

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At the weekend, authorities in Sydney said they would tighten restrictions, increase fines and ramp up policing to deter rule-breakers. The lockdown in the nation’s most populous city, in force for more than seven weeks, was at the weekend extended to all of New South Wales state.

The lockdowns are starting to have a heavy economic impact. The Australian Retailers Association says the New South Wales measures alone would cost about A$1.5 billion ($1.1 billion) in lost revenue a week.

“Small businesses are the life blood of so many regional towns and the lockdown will come as quite a shock, given this is something many haven’t experienced since the very beginning of the pandemic,” the association’s chief Paul Zahra said in a statement.

From Monday in Sydney, there will be a “visible and increased police presence” in areas worst affected by the outbreak, including members of the riot squad, and an extra 500 soldiers to enforce compliance on top of the 300 already on the ground, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said. Fines will be ramped up, including A$5,000 for quarantine breaches and A$3,000 for exercising outside of guidelines.

Victoria’s Andrews, who on Monday announced playgrounds, basketball courts, skate parks and exercise equipment would also be off limits along with Melbourne’s new 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, pointed to a highly publicized recent case in the city where an engagement party was held despite social-distancing rules. More than 60 people attended, with the event leading to further Covid-19 cases.

He also chastised people attending outside “pop-up” bars during the past weekend, saying such events would now be banned.

“I know people are weary and I know people are sick and tired of this, but each of us have to find it in ourselves to make good choices for these next couple of weeks,” Andrews said. Only that way could case numbers be driven down, potentially allowing Melbourne “to be in a position so that we can reopen,” he said.

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