Australia fears contagion as Victoria state reports record coronavirus deaths

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s Victoria state reported a record rise in new COVID-19 cases and deaths on Wednesday, as it prepared to close much of its economy to control a second wave of infection that threatens to spread across the country.

The second-most populous state in Australia reported a daily high of 725 new COVID-19 cases and a record 15 deaths despite having reimposed a lockdown on Melbourne, the state capital with a population of 5 million people, four weeks ago.

New South Wales and Queensland states introduced new measures to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, which has claimed 738 lives across the country of 25 million people.

In Victoria, the state government imposed a night curfew and tightened restrictions on people’s movements across greater Melbourne on Sunday, and ordered most businesses to stop trading from Wednesday night in a massive blow to the national economy.

An nearly empty train station in Victoria, which otherwise would be busy during peak hour. (Image: Smriti Pradhan)

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said on Wednesday further restrictions would include shutting most child-care centres and expanding a ban on elective surgery to the whole state to free up medical resources for coronavirus cases.

“The notion of more than 700 cases is not sustainable. We need to drive the numbers down and this strategy is designed to do just that,” Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.

Victoria accounts for about a quarter of the nation’s economy and has nearly two-thirds of Australia’s almost 19,500 cases.

In northeastern Queensland state, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said travelers from New South Wales and the capital Canberra would be barred from Saturday. The state is already closed to Victorians.

“We have seen that Victoria is not getting better, and we’re not going to wait for New South Wales to get worse. We need to act,” Palaszczuk told reporters in Brisbane.

After two months of no community transmission in the state, Queensland now has at least three such cases, the deputy premier said.

“It is clear now that Australia is experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 and we cannot afford to have that second wave here in Queensland,” Deputy Premier Steven Miles said.

Queensland reported one new case on Wednesday, while New South Wales (NSW), the most-populous state, reported 12 new cases.

Travelers returning from Victoria to NSW through Sydney airport will be required to self-quarantine in hotels for 14 days from midnight on Friday, the NSW government said.

“Whilst the number of cases in New South Wales is pleasingly stable, we continue to be at high risk because we know how one or two cases that get out of control can have a detrimental impact,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

The closure of businesses in Victoria and curbs on construction activity, meatworks and warehouses are set to cost 250,000 jobs, doubling the number of jobs already lost in the state due to the pandemic.

In another blow to the economy, Australia’s number two airline, Virgin Australia Holdings, said on Wednesday it would axe 3,000 jobs under its prospective new owner Bain Capital.

Australia’s central bank now expects the nation’s jobless rate to spike to 10% later this year.