Victoria enters sixth pandemic lockdown as Australia widens restrictions

SYDNEY, (Reuters) – More than half of all Australians woke up to hard lockdowns on Friday as the country battles to contain COVID-19 outbreaks fuelled by the Delta virus variant, with Victoria reporting a slight easing in locally acquired cases.

Lockdowns have been enforced across the east coast, including Australia’s three largest cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – putting more than 60% of the country’s 25 million population under strict stay-home orders.

Victoria, home to nearly 7 million people, was plunged into its sixth lockdown since the pandemic began on Thursday night, just weeks after exiting its last, jolting residents and triggering an anti-lockdown rally in state capital Melbourne.

Six locally acquired cases of COVID-19 were detected in Victoria on Friday, a day after several unlinked new infections in Melbourne suddenly emerged. It reported eight cases on Thursday.

Of Friday’s cases, all are linked to previously reported ones but were not in quarantine during their infectious period, the state’s health department said.

In Brisbane, the authorities reported 10 new cases, down from 16 the day before, and added that they were hopeful a lockdown would be lifted as planned on Sunday since all but two cases were isolated before testing positive.

Residents of Newcastle, the second-largest city in neighbouring New South Wales, also came under a week-long lockdown from Thursday after new cases were likely linked to a beach party visited by some infectious Sydney residents.

Sydney, the worst affected city, a day earlier reported 262 infections, its biggest daily rise so far, despite a weeks-long lockdown, with officials bracing for more cases due to the growing number of infected people in the community.

The fast-moving Delta strain is testing Australia’s largely successful handling of the coronavirus crisis that has kept its exposure relatively low with just over 35,350 cases and 932 deaths.

But stop-and-start lockdowns amid a sluggish vaccination rollout, with only about 21% of people above 16 fully vaccinated, have frustrated residents.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under fire for the slow rollout, has blamed the delay on changing medical advice on locally produced AstraZeneca’s (AZN.L) vaccines over concerns of rare blood clots and supply constraints over Pfizer (PFE.N) shots.