Flights cancelled, holidays in disarray as Sydney battles pre-Christmas COVID-19 outbreak

(Reuters) -Dozens of domestic flights due to leave Sydney were cancelled on Monday, as Australia battled to contain a fresh COVID-19 outbreak in its largest city four days before Christmas.

More than 80 locations including cafes, gyms, casinos and supermarkets across Sydney were identified as having been visited by people with confirmed cases. Authorities urged anyone who attended the venues to immediately get tested and self-isolate.

The new virus cluster, which was detected in Sydney’s northern coastal suburbs last week, grew to nearly 70 cases as of Sunday, prompting all other states and territories to close borders to Sydney’s 5 million residents, throwing Christmas travel plans into disarray.

Flights between Sydney and Melbourne, one of the busiest routes in the world before the pandemic, and on other domestic routes were being cancelled from Monday, Qantas Airways Ltd said.

“A number of flights will be cancelled … we’ll be contacting customers directly impacted by any flight changes,” Qantas and its low-cost arm, JetStar, said in a statement.

All Australian states and territories closed their borders to Sydney and warned their own residents to return quickly if they wanted to avoid mandatory quarantine.

Australian police and military personnel have been deployed at many state borders to enforce the new rules, and lawmakers warned people to expect long delays across state lines.

Desperate to contain the spread, New South Wales (NSW) has opened dozens of new testing sites, some of which are running 24-hours a day.

Still, lines of cars stretched around some testing facilities, with many people forced to wait hours over the weekend for a test.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said it was “almost certain” there would be more cases on Monday.

“We know how to do this as a country, we know how to flatten this curve. We have done it before,” he said.

Authorities are also racing to find the source of the infection, with suspicion falling on an airline worker from the United States, who was tested several times after arriving in Australia.

“We know a woman got off a flight from Los Angeles on Dec. 1 … her genomic sequencing indicates it is extremely close to the strain of the virus that is circulating on the northern beaches,” NSW Minister for Health Brad Hazzard told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“She is certainly a person that we have got to look more closely at.”

However, it was not yet clear how she passed on the virus.

Australia has largely avoided high coronavirus numbers compared with other developed nations, but the new cluster has sparked fears of a wider outbreak. The country has recorded just under 28,200 cases and 908 deaths since the pandemic began.