Australian officials say too early to make call on ending Victoria lockdown

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The leader of Australia’s Victoria state said on Monday it was too early to say if a snap five-day coronavirus lockdown would end as planned on Wednesday evening, as authorities confirmed a national vaccine rollout was on track to begin next week.

Victoria, the second most populous state in the country, reported just one new COVID-19 infection on Monday, taking the total cases in a recent cluster linked to a quarantine hotel to 17 people. The most recent case is the mother of a three-year-old child who tested positive a day earlier.

Under the state-wide lockdown, Victoria’s six million-plus residents are required to stay home except for essential shopping and work, caregiving and outdoor exercise.

The Australian Open tennis tournament, which is being held in the state capital of Melbourne until Feb. 21, has barred spectators until the end of the lockdown.

“We will have more to say with the passage of time and more results … we are well-placed right now, but right now is too early to be definitive about Wednesday evening,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.

With just under 29,000 COVID-19 cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began, Australia has escaped the high number of cases and deaths recorded by many other developed countries thanks to border closures and lockdowns.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the rollout of the vaccine jointly developed by Pfizer Inc and Germany’s BioNTech will start in late February.

“I can also confirm that the vaccines are scheduled to land in Australia before the end of the week, if not earlier,” Hunt told reporters.

Neighbouring New Zealand has put its largest city of Auckland under a snap lockdown through Wednesday after detecting three new cases over the weekend, leading Australia to suspend quarantine-free travel for arriving New Zealanders.