Australia rings in 2021 with new pandemic restrictions, traffic jam

FILE PHOTO: A public health warning message is posted amidst the tightening of regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, December 30, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

(Reuters) -Australia welcomed 2021 with subdued celebrations as hopes for a better year were dampened by new COVID-19 outbreaks in the country’s two most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria.

Hundreds of families spent New Year’s eve stranded in a kilometre-long traffic jam as they rushed to their home states to avoid border restrictions that kick in from midnight.

New South Wales (NSW) is the epicentre of the latest outbreak with a cluster that began in Sydney’s Northern Beaches expanding to 146. It reported three new coronavirus cases overnight from more than 32,000 tests.

“The strong message from us is to be on high alert, come forward and get tested with the mildest of symptoms,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklien told reporters in Sydney, urging people to wear masks.

“We are in a stage in the pandemic where we do need to be on high alert.”

Neighbouring Victoria reported no new virus cases in the 24 hours to midnight, though authorities expect numbers to rise in coming days. The state has a cluster of eight cases, with some believed linked to the Sydney outbreak.

The outbreaks in the two states occurred after weeks without any community transmission, and they forced people to cancel New Year plans and rush back home to avoid being quarantined.

“The NSW link is still our primary line of investigation for this outbreak,” said Martin Foley, health minister for Victoria state which this week limited indoor gatherings to 15 people and reintroduced mandatory masks indoors.

“We expect genomic testing to come through very shortly.”

South Australia state on Thursday said rising infections in Sydney have led it to put up a hard border with NSW starting Friday, with only returning residents, essential workers and people relocating to the state allowed entry.

Australia has reported just over 28,400 COVID-19 cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began.