Sydney’s strict Covid lockdown has been extended by at least a month after just 177 new cases were discovered today in a city of more than 5 million people.
The city, Australia’s largest, has been under strict stay-at-home orders since late June and will now remain closed until at least August 28.
But experts have warned it could be mid-September before all measures are lifted in Sydney, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison adding that rapid lockdowns will be the government’s go-to response to Covid outbreaks until at least Christmas.
Only then will enough Australians be vaccinated to consider changing the way the country is dealing with outbreaks of the virus, he added.
Australia oversees one of the world’s slowest vaccination campaigns with just 16 percent of people stung despite the rollout that began in February.
Sydney’s Covid lockdown has been extended until at least August 28 after just 177 Covid cases were discovered on Wednesday in a city of more than 5 million people
That’s despite the country having an abundant supply of AstraZeneca shots, with people reluctant to take them due to confusing advice about the risk of blood clots.
Mr Morrison apologized last week for the slow pace of the rollout after months of criticism.
Australia is pursuing a so-called ‘zero Covid’ strategy, in which cases are expelled from the country using strict border closures and quarantines – wiping out outbreaks with hard, fast lockdowns every time a case escapes.
Lockdowns will only be eased once Covid cases drop to zero.
Such lockdowns have been used at least a dozen times in the past year, with the states of Victoria and South Australia easing their measures today.
The approach has seen Australia have some of the lowest Covid cases and death tolls of any country – 33,000 cases and 918 deaths – and have allowed people to live relatively normal lives between lockdowns.
However, it has also left tens of thousands of Australians stranded abroad with rationed tickets and asked travelers to pay the bill for quarantine.
Coupled with a slow vaccine drive, this also means that – at a time when most developed countries are abolishing lockdowns and returning to some normalcy – Australians are still locked up at home.
Millions living in Australia’s most populous city will now have to stay at home until at least August 28, unless for essentials or sports
And as Covid mutates and becomes more contagious, those lockdowns are becoming more common, with the Delta variant proving particularly difficult to control.
As a sign that Australia is running out of patience with the strategy, thousands of people took part in ‘freedom’ protests over the weekend in some of the largest cities.
Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane were hit by sometimes violent protests when people demanding an end to the restrictions clashed with police.
Two men in their thirties were charged in Sydney with beating a police horse, while dozens of others were arrested and hundreds were fined.
Morrison and New South Wales State Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian labeled the protesters “selfish” and warned at the time that demonstrations would be “self-defeating” by increasing the number of cases and further stretching lockdowns.
The number of cases in Sydney has risen steadily since the demonstration took place, reaching 177 on Wednesday – an extremely low total compared to most of the rest of the world, but the highest number in the city since March last year.
Ms Berejiklian then announced that the lockdown – which was to end Friday and has already been extended twice – would need to be extended further.
Until at least August 28, residents of Greater Sydney must stay at home unless they go shopping, get medicine or do essential work.
The rules have now been tightened, meaning people cannot travel more than six miles from their home to perform those activities, unless they have to travel further for their essential work.
Covid cases have risen steadily in New South Wales state since the lockdown was first announced but are still extremely low compared to other countries
Australia’s ‘zero Covid’ strategy has left the country’s case and death toll among the lowest in the world, but has plunged the country into repeated brutal lockdowns
Australia has seen a total of just 33,000 Covid cases and 918 deaths from the virus, but has gone through more than a dozen lockdowns this year alone
Some 2 million people have also been banned from leaving their local government areas except for essential work.
Meanwhile, thousands of people who have visited 49 locations in Sydney have been warned that they may have been exposed to Covid and should be tested.
Visitors to five sites have been told to test and isolate for 14 days regardless of the outcome of the test.
Those locations include a pharmacy, health food store, two grocery stores, and a Pizza Hut restaurant.
“I’m just as upset and frustrated as all of you that we weren’t able to get the case numbers we wanted at this point, but that’s the reality,” Ms Berejiklian said.
She added that police would encourage enforcement of the extensive social distancing rules and urged people to report suspected wrongdoing, saying that “we cannot bear to see people continue to do the wrong thing because it puts us all back.”
In one case, a mourning ceremony attended by 50 people in violation of lockdown rules resulted in 45 infections, she said.
The extension turns what was initially intended as a ‘snap’ closure of Australia’s most populous city into one of the longest since the start of the pandemic, and could trigger a second recession within two years, economists say.
To minimize the economic impact, the NSW government said it would lift a ban on unoccupied construction in most of Sydney.
However, it expanded a list of local government areas in the city where the ban would remain in place due to the prevalence of COVID-19 cases there.
The popularity of the federal government may suffer from the extended lockdown.
New South Wales Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian said she was “frustrated” at the ongoing lockdown, even as she extended it for another four weeks.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned the country’s ‘zero Covid’ approach will remain in effect until at least Christmas, when vaccination campaigns should ramp up
Polls show dwindling support for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government amid criticism of a slow vaccine rollout blamed on changing regulatory advice and shortages of supplies.
“There is no other shortcut, there is no other way through, we have to bow down and persevere,” Morrison said at a televised news conference in the national capital, Canberra.
He acknowledged that his own family had become entangled in the lockdown in Sydney.
“There will be a lot of criticism, there will be a lot of hindsight, but this Delta species is very unpredictable.”
On Wednesday, the NSW government said it would be diverting doses of Pfizer vaccine, which had so far been limited to people aged 40 to 60, from relatively unaffected regional areas to senior students in Sydney’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.
The state and federal governments also said they were expanding an emergency funding package to allow affected companies to continue paying wages during the shutdown.
Unlike NSW, the states of Victoria and South Australia started their first day without shorter lockdowns stopping the outbreaks there.
Victoria reported eight new cases, all isolated during their infectious period, and another case was still under investigation.
The state of Queensland reported one new case, a man who completed the country’s two-week mandatory hotel quarantine and tested positive nine days later.
Authorities said they were trying to track down people who may have been in close contact with him, including the residents of a youth hostel where he was staying.