Sydney tightens virus restrictions to contain delta outbreak
Lockdown measures across Sydney are being tightened as authorities struggle to contain the delta variant of the coronavirus, with tougher rules applied to retail trading and some emerging local hotspots now subject to extra movement restrictions.
The government ordered non-critical retail outlets to shutter from midnight, while construction work must cease until July 30, when the current lockdown order is due to end. The state recorded 111 new cases on Saturday, including 29 that were infectious in the community despite being told to stay at home, bringing the total cases in the current outbreak to well over 1,000. Supermarkets, pharmacists and banks are allowed to remain open.
“We don’t underestimate the impact this has on our businesses,” New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters on Saturday. “This is our chance to quash this virus and make sure that families and businesses can bounce back as quickly as possible.”
Adding to the wider clampdown, people living in three local government areas have been barred from leaving those locations except under exceptional circumstances in an attempt to ring-fence the virus that has become increasingly concentrated in those communities, Berejiklian said.
The new curbs are an about-face for Berejiklian’s pro-business government, which had steadfastly refused to define what is considered essential work during the city’s lockdown that’s entering its fourth week, instead relying on employers and their workers to interpret complex orders.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had earlier praised the New South Wales state government for not snapping into an immediate lockdown following the incident that sparked the latest outbreak a month ago, when an unvaccinated chauffeur infected with the delta variant spread it on while transporting airline crew.
Now, as case numbers in Sydney remain stubbornly high, it raises the prospect that the lockdown deadline - currently scheduled for July 30 - could be extended for a third time, after Berejiklian last week indicated that local case numbers would need to be near zero for the order to end.
Following the announcement of tighter restrictions, Australia’s banking sector expanded on available support packages for customers impacted by the lockdown. The so-called Big Four Banks each offered loan deferrals of between two and three months for individuals, as well other changes to transactional banking that could minimise costs for small businesses, which are also eligible for loan deferrals and term extensions.
The move marks a shift in the industry’s stance toward customer support after the banks started to pull back on loan loss provisioning at a time when Australia’s ‘Covid Zero’ strategy appeared to be paying off amid a recovering economy.
Sydney’s outbreak has spread to Melbourne, the nation’s second-largest city, which shuttered for two weeks in late May to halt the spread of the delta strain and last year endured one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns. Nineteen new infections were detected in Victoria state in the past 24 hours, up from 10 Friday as Melbourne was again plunged into a snap five-day lockdown.
Australia’s tardy vaccine roll-out - one of the slowest among the 38 OECD nations - has made the country particularly vulnerable to the delta variant, which has increasingly leaked out of the quarantine system for overseas arrivals. While economies such as the UK and US are opening up, Australia’s international borders remain largely closed, and fairly small clusters make even domestic travel difficult as states and territories pull up the drawbridge.
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