Melbourne Lockdown Extended Another Seven Days as Covid Cluster Grows


Melbourne’s lockdown will be extended beyond the initial seven days announced last week as authorities struggle to contain a Covid-19 cluster that’s grown to 60 and is more infectious than seen in the Australian city’s previous outbreaks.

The current restrictions will remain in place in Melbourne for a further seven days, Victoria state acting Premier James Merlino told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday. The lockdown in the city and the rest of the state started on Friday. Restrictions in regional areas of Victoria are proposed to begin easing from 11:59pm on Thursday.

“If we let this thing run its course, it will explode,” Merlino said. “We’ve got to run this to ground because if we don’t, people will die.”

The city of 5 million people has been the epicenter of Australia’s battle to eliminate Covid-19 cases within the community, and is now in its fourth lockdown since the pandemic began. The current cluster originated from a breach in a hotel in neighboring South Australia state being used to quarantine Australians returning from overseas.

The outbreak shows the limitations of Australia’s strategy to eliminate the virus from the community through tight border controls. While day-to-day life for most Australians has largely returned to normal this year, cases have sometimes leaked into the community, triggering localized lockdowns and internal travel bans implemented by states and territories that have caused upheaval to the retail and tourism industries.

In a bid to ease pressure on Melbourne businesses, the Victorian government has announced support for small and medium-sized businesses of A$460 million ($357 million). Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s federal government has ruled out further financial support.

Under pressure

Morrison’s government is under pressure to relocate quarantine facilities away from hotels in the central business districts of major cities by funding purpose-built facilities in regional areas. He’s also been criticized for a slow rollout of the vaccine program, with about 4.3 million people in the nation of 26 million so far receiving their first jab.

Mark Butler, the health spokesman for the opposition Labor party, told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday that it was estimated the state’s lockdown could be costing the national economy about A$1 billion a week.

Morrison’s government should “be seeking proposals for a network of facilities to take the pressure off our hotel system, which is leaking the virus almost on a weekly and fortnightly basis and was built for tourism purposes,” Butler said.

‘We have stepped up to the plate in supporting business and the federal government needs to do exactly the same thing,” Victoria’s Merlino said, calling for wage subsidies for workers waylaid by the lockdown. “Victorian businesses are absolutely devastated by this lockdown, as are families and businesses.”

Genome sequencing has confirmed the cases in Victoria are from the variant that was first detected in India. Merlino said in a separate statement on Wednesday that authorities had discerned that one in 10 current cases had caught the variant of the virus now spreading in Victoria from a stranger.

“People brushing against each other in a small shop,” he said. “Getting a take-away coffee from the same cafe. Being in the same place, at the same time for mere moments. Just walking past someone you’ve never met can mean the virus is jumping to a whole new network.”