How the Delta variant broke through Australia’s Covid defences

More than ten million Australians put under lockdown as highly contagious new strain spreads

A drive-through testing centre in Perth
A drive-through testing centre in Perth
(Image credit: Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

Four of Australia’s eight capital cities are back under lockdown as the country battles to contain outbreaks of the Delta variant of Covid-19.

The authorities in Perth, Brisbane, Sydney and Darwin - combined population 10.2 million - have “tightened movement curbs and pushed for vaccinations to limit flare-ups” of the highly contagious strain, which was first detected in India, reports Reuters.

The move follows a nationwide rise in active Covid infections - most of which are believed to be the Delta variant - with a total of 271 cases as of Monday, according to official data.

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Unwelcome guest

The majority of the new cases are in New South Wales (NSW), with the total tally in the southeastern state reaching 149 yesterday after 19 locally acquired infections were recorded.

“Of the 19 cases, 17 were linked to previously reported cases, with another two close contacts of a previously reported, unlinked case,” The Guardian reports. Investigations into the unlinked cases are “ongoing”, the paper adds, but NSW’s chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, has revealed that one of the newly infected “close contacts” was a resident in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and that the other worked there.

“What I want to see in progressive days is that we start seeing all of the cases being effectively isolated that we’re announcing. That will be a key indicator of success,” Chant told reporters yesterday.

“At the moment we are still seeing some cases that were potentially infectious in the community but what we’re hoping is, because of the lockdown, the number of interactions those cases have had, where there is the potential for transmitting the virus, would have decreased significantly.”

Officials in the northern city of Darwin are also scrambling to stop the spread there after a “gold mine worker tested positive for the variant”, Sky News reports. The test result has triggered a race to “track down 900 mine workers around the country who could have been infected by the initial case”, the broadcaster adds.

The Delta variant has already been detected in a total of five of Australia’s eight states and territories, “after months in which it had nearly stamped out the virus”, says Reuters.

The clusters of cases have been traced back a first infection in Sydney in a “limousine driver of an overseas airline crew”, the news agency reports.

Despite the imposition of lockdown measures, fears are growing that the variant’s arrival signals the end of Australia’s successful run in fending off Covid.

As Sky News notes, strong border controls combined with “lockdowns, tough social distancing rules and swift contact tracing have helped the country suppress previous outbreaks”.

Indeed, Australia has been “celebrated for its initial response to the pandemic and for getting its economy more or less back on track”, says CNN.

But “with that security has come complacency”, the US broadcaster continues. Australia’s federal government “failed to secure enough vaccine doses” to prevent the continuation of regular “circuit breaker” shutdowns “every time a handful of cases emerge”.

As the finger-pointing begins, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has warned that “we have to be prepared for the numbers to bounce around and we also have to be prepared for the numbers to go up considerably”.

That warning was underlined by national health policy adviser Bill Bowtell, who said that Australians should brace for “the most serious crisis in the Covid pandemic since the early days” last year.

Splendid isolation

Around 18 million Australians - around 70% of the population - are now under some form of lockdown or restrictions as “officials grapple with increasing Covid-19 infections”, says Sky News.

Federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corp on Monday that the country was “entering a new phase of this pandemic, with the more contagious Delta strain”. Australia was facing a “critical time”, he added.

Alarm over the latest outbreaks has been fuelled by the slow progress of the national campaign to vaccinate Australians against the coronavirus, with latest Oxford University tracking showing that just 28.92 people per 100 have received at least one jab.

In a bid to speed up “Australia’s lagging vaccination programme” and “overcome fears about the side-effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that GPs who administer Covid vaccines are to be covered by a no-fault indemnity scheme, reports The Times.

Under the plan, doctors will be able to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine to any Australian who wants to have it. The government had previously recommended the use of the Pfizer vaccine for citizens aged under 60, owing to concerns about rare blood clotting associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

But with the stakes now rising, the authorities have also introduced mandatory vaccination for high-risk care workers and employees in quarantine hotels.

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