Australia’s second most populous state Victoria will enter a seven-day lockdown from midnight on Thursday to counter a fast-spreading outbreak in its capital, Melbourne.
Authorities have so far found 26 cases and identified 150 places where people may have been exposed to the virus, which Victoria’s acting Premier James Merlino described as a highly contagious strain spreading “faster than we have ever recorded”.
Cases have now been found across the state with links to a large number of venues, including packed football games at stadiums in Melbourne.
“With 10,000 primary and secondary contacts of cases, with more than 150 exposure sites right around the state of Victoria, we need to act now,” Merlino said. “If we wait too long, this thing will get away from us.”
For the next seven days, Victorians will be required to stay at home except for essential work, shopping, exercise, caregiving or to get a Covid vaccine. No gatherings are allowed, and travel is restricted to within 5km of the home. Mask wearing will be mandatory. Schools will be closed except for children of essential workers. Places of worship and all other non-essential venues will also be shut.
Other Australian states are expected to limit movement of people from Victoria, with South Australia already blocking travellers from the state.
The new outbreak marks the biggest increase in community transmission of the virus since the state came out of a second wave in October 2020, which caused more than 20,000 infections and 820 deaths – about 70% of cases and most of the fatalities nationwide.
Victoria was forced to endure a marathon 112-day lockdown to bring infections back to zero.
The latest outbreak has been traced to an overseas traveller who arrived and tested negative while in quarantine in South Australia. Anyone arriving in Australia from abroad must complete mandatory 14-day quarantine.
The traveller developed symptoms and tested positive six days after going to Melbourne.
Australia has successfully staved off widespread transmission of the virus through strict border controls, snap lockdowns and quarantine measures but it has also been slow to vaccinate its population, and the latest outbreak has prompted renewed calls for Australians to get their jabs.
The country’s Covid immunisation rollout has been dogged by delays due to supply and logistical problems, as well as rising hesitancy to get the jab among some groups. So far, less than 10% of the population has been vaccinated.
“The vaccine rollout has been slower than we hoped,” said Merlino. “If more people were vaccinated, we might be facing a very different set of circumstances than we are today.”
The country is conducting a staged rollout based on age and vulnerability, but Merlino said anyone in the state aged over 40 would now be eligible to receive a jab.
On Wednesday, the federal government pledged to send an extra 140,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Melbourne to boost protection of the elderly and other vulnerable groups.