By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s second-most populous state, Victoria, reported two new cases of locally transmitted COVID-19 infection on Sunday, day two of a snap lockdown as authorities scrambled to curb the spread of the highly infectious UK variant of the disease.
The two cases, including a 3-year-old child, were the first two who were not household contacts of a cluster of infected workers at a quarantine hotel at Melbourne airport which had triggered the five-day lockdown, health authorities said. The hotel cluster has now affected 16 people.
While there have only been three new local cases identified following thousands of tests since the lockdown was announced on Friday, Victoria’s health officials said the tough curbs – forcing the state’s six million-plus people to stay home for five days – were still needed.
“It is too early to say whether we have been successful, but the signs that show Victorians are doing the right thing,” Victoria’s health minister, Martin Foley, told reporters.
All Victorians have to stay home except for essential shopping and work, caregiving and outdoor exercise, as the state races to trace customers of an airport cafe where a worker was infected and contacts of the two new cases.
The latter had attended a social function where one of the hotel workers was present. Others among the 38 at that event are in isolation and being tested.
“This is a high stakes game, when (there’s) a virus that has caused devastation across the Northern Hemisphere and many, many other countries in the world and may soon be the predominant variant of concern globally, and we cannot afford to be wrong here,” Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told reporters.
While schools and shops were shut through Wednesday, play went on at the Australian Open tennis, the year’s first Grand Slam event, but with no fans in the stands. The event runs until Feb. 21.
“It’s very strange,” said women’s world number one Ash Barty, who normally would have had a home crowd of thousands cheering her on, speaking after winning her match on Saturday.
Health officials and the Australian Open’s chief said they were not concerned about a tennis player, Michail Pervolarakis, who tested positive in South Africa after returning from a tournament in Australia. He had tested negative before leaving Australia and is believed to have contracted the infection while in transit.
New Zealand meanwhile reported three new local cases in one family on Sunday in the country’s biggest city, Auckland, the country’s first local cases since Jan. 24.
Having at one stage been in the rare position of having virtually eliminated the virus domestically, New Zealand is now set to start inoculating its five million people against COVID-19 on Feb. 20.
Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt said flights from New Zealand, with which Australia has a one-way travel bubble, are still being allowed in.
“We feel at the moment that the risk is very low,” Hunt told reporters.
Australia is on track to begin its vaccine rollout in late February, he confirmed.