By Renju Jose
SYDNEY (Reuters) -The Australian state of Victoria extended on Wednesday a snap coronavirus lockdown in its capital of Melbourne for a second week, as it scrambles to rein in a highly contagious variant first detected in India, but will ease some curbs elsewhere.
Last Thursday’s lockdown in Australia’s second most populous state was to have run until Thursday, following the detection of the first locally acquired cases in three months, but infections rose and the number of close contacts reached several thousand.
“If we let this thing run its course, it will explode,” the state’s acting Premier James Merlino told reporters in Melbourne. “This variant of concern will become uncontrollable and people will die.”
“No one…wants to repeat last winter,” he added, referring to one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns that the southeastern state imposed in 2020 to leash a second wave of infections.
More than 800 people died in that outbreak, accounting for about 90% of Australia’s total deaths since the pandemic began.
Snap lockdowns, regional border curbs and tough social distancing rules have largely helped Australia suppress prior outbreaks and keep its COVID-19 figures relatively low, at just over 30,100 cases and 910 deaths.
Though Victoria’s daily cases have been in the single digits since the lockdown was imposed, officials fear even minimal contact could help spread the variant involved in the latest outbreak.
Six new locally acquired cases were reported on Wednesday, versus nine a day earlier, taking to 60 the tally of infections in the latest outbreak.
Health authorities have said the variant could take just one day to pass from person to person, versus the five or six days of contact required for transmission of earlier variants.
For now, Melbourne’s five million residents face a second week of being allowed to leave home only for essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping, exercise or a vaccination.
But this restriction is likely to be relaxed for people elsewhere in the state, depending on any local transmission in the next 24 hours, while other measures, such as mandatory masks, will stay.
The latest outbreak has been traced back to a traveler who returned from overseas, authorities have said. The individual left hotel quarantine in the state of South Australia after testing negative, but subsequently tested positive in Melbourne.
Casino operator Crown Resorts Ltd, Victoria’s biggest single-site employer with 11,500 staff, had said at the start of the lockdown it would stand down staff but pay them wages for rostered hours.
After Wednesday’s extension, Crown has said it would make only a “one-off discretionary” payment, however.
Since the early days of the pandemic, Australian employers have relied on federal subsidies to pay staff stood down during lockdowns, but the government ended that scheme in March.
Merlino, the acting Victoria premier, called for the federal government to reinstate the subsidies in light of the lockdown. Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the government was open to new support measures but would talk to officials in Victoria before committing to specifics.
(Reporting by Renju Jose with additional reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Clarence Fernandez)