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'Late' restrictions, low vaccination uptake and a new variant: what's behind Australia's Covid-19 surge?

Cases in the country have been at record-breaking levels for five days.

A pop-up Covid testing centre is seen in Sydney on Monday.
A pop-up Covid testing centre is seen in Sydney on Monday.
Image: Mick Tsikas/PA Images

AUSTRALIA REPORTED 112 new cases of Covid-19 in the state of New South Wales on Monday, the highest number in more than a year as the highly infectious Delta variant continues to spread across Sydney.

Almost all of the cases were reported in the city, which is beginning its third week of lockdown.

The country also reported its first locally-acquired Covid-19 death this year. A 90-year-old woman died in hospital on Saturday just hours after testing positive for the virus. 

The recent surge in cases has been linked to a case first detected in June, when a limousine driver contracted the virus after transporting an international flight crew to a quarantine hotel.

The government subsequently imposed a two-week lockdown which was due to end on 9 July, but this was extended to 16 July due to the rising number of cases.

All schools have closed, with residents of the city only permitted to leave their homes for food shopping, exercise, medical care or essential work.

Clusters were also recorded in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, with restrictions being implemented in each. Perth, Brisbane and Darwin only emerged from their respective lockdowns at the beginning of July.   

The premier of New South Wales Gladys Berejiklian said that driving down the number of cases in the community would dictate whether the lockdown would be extended further.

“It really is up to us. The health expert advice will be based on what those numbers look like. I can’t be clearer than that,” she said.

While case numbers remain relatively low, the move to implement lockdowns is due to the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, which Berejiklian described as a “game changer”. 

Following a meeting with state leaders last month, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the Delta variant was “presenting very different challenges from those we have faced in the past.”

He also said that he was not “prepared to countenance” any reopening of the country or relaxation of rules that would lead to deaths rates seen elsewhere.

“It would be, I think, unwise to surrender up that advantage at this point, and preferably at no point,” he added. 

Criticism

But the government is facing growing criticism for being too slow to act when the new cluster was first detected. 

Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid told Sky News Australia that the restrictions implemented had been “too late” to cut the transmission rate enough.

“It’s cut it down a bit and we certainly haven’t seen the exponential rise we would’ve seen without the lockdown but nowhere near to the point of squashing this down to zero,” he said.

Australia previously won praise for the way in which it handled the outbreak of the pandemic last year.

When Covid-19 was first detected there in March 2020, the government responded quickly by closing international borders and implementing a mandatory home isolation programme for returning Australian citizens.

This stopped the rapid spread of the virus seen elsewhere, and allowed the country to build an effective testing and tracing system.

Last November, while Ireland was still under Level 5 restrictions and infections were surging across Europe and the United States, Australia had almost fully eliminated community transmission.

With 31,200 cases and 911 deaths in total since the pandemic began, the country has fared better than most in the fight against the virus.

Low vaccination rate

But the spread of the Delta variant – which is up to four times as transmissible as previous strains of the virus – is considered to be taking advantage of the country’s low vaccination rate.

The Australian government is facing criticism due to the slow pace of the vaccine rollout: just 9% of the adult population have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

Morrison has blamed the EU’s restricted vaccine supply for the country’s slump in vaccinations, but the media there is reporting that rising vaccine hesitancy is also contributing to the problem. 

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A recent survey found that nearly one-third of adult Australians said they are unlikely to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Another survey conducted by the Australian National University found that eight out of ten people were worried about possible side effects following concerns over rare blood clots from an AstraZeneca dose – the country’s main Covid jab.

Recent efforts to encourage citizens to avail of a vaccine have not been as successful as had been hoped. 

A new government advert aimed at prompting more people to apply for a jab has been highly criticised for being “too graphic” and “insensitve”, with some saying it may actually increase the level of vaccine hesitancy.

The advert shows a young woman lying in a hospital bed struggling to breathe while hooked up to a ventilator.

Social media users were quick to point out that while the ad depicts a young woman, those under 40 are not yet eligible for a Pfizer vaccine. 

Official health advice also recommends that this age group wait for a Pfizer vaccine instead of getting an available AstraZeneca vaccine due to the concerns around blood clots. 

Despite the backlash, the government has defended the advert.

Australia’s Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly said it was “meant to be graphic” to “push the message home” about the need to stay home, get tested and book a vaccination appointment.

“We are only doing this because of the situation in Sydney,” he said.

Contains reporting from AFP.

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