Sydney to tighten COVID-19 curbs, Australian capital to enter lockdown

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Extra Australian military personnel may be called in to ensure compliance with lockdown rules in Sydney, the New South Wales state government said on Thursday, as the highly infectious Delta coronavirus variant spreads into regional areas.

The move comes as Australia’s capital city, Canberra, 260 km (160 miles) southwest of Sydney, announced a snap one-week lockdown from Thursday evening after reporting its first locally acquired case of COVID-19 in more than a year. Authorities later confirmed an additional three cases, all close contacts of the first case, an unnamed man.

Australia is battling to get on top of the fast-moving Delta strain that has plunged its two largest cities – Sydney and Melbourne – into hard lockdowns.

“We are making sure that we do not leave any stone unturned in relation to extra (military) resources,” New South Wales (NSW) state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said at a media conference in Sydney, the state capital.

Some 580 unarmed army personnel are already helping police enforce home-quarantine orders on affected households in the worst-affected suburbs of Sydney, Australia’s most populous city.

Several regional towns scattered across NSW have also been forced into snap lockdowns after fresh cases, raising fears the virus is spreading out of control.

Despite seven weeks of lockdown in Sydney, daily infections continue to hover near record highs. NSW on Thursday reported 345 new locally acquired cases, most of them in Sydney, up from 344 a day earlier.

Lockdown rules were tightened in three more local council areas in Sydney, limiting the movement of people to within 5 km (3 miles) of their homes.

Joe Awada, the mayor of Bayside Council, one of the areas placed under additional restrictions, questioned why more targeted curbs were not introduced.

“I mean to lockdown 200,000 residents because of three suburbs is not acceptable to me,” Awada told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Officials also reported the deaths of two men in their 90s, taking the total deaths in the latest outbreak to 36. A total of 374 cases are in hospitals, with 62 in intensive care, 29 of whom require ventilation.

In Canberra, authorities said the one-week lockdown was needed as they were unsure how the man is his 20s acquired COVID-19.

Canberra has largely escaped any COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, and confirmation of a Delta variant saw panic buying at the supermarkets and long lines at testing sites.

Neighboring Victoria state on Thursday reported 21 new locally acquired cases, up from 20 a day earlier, as 5 million residents of Melbourne, the state capital, prepare to enter a second week of lockdown.

Of the new cases, six spent time outdoors while infectious, a number which authorities have said must return to near zero before restrictions can be eased.

Australia has largely avoided the high coronavirus numbers seen in many other countries, with just over 37,700 cases and 946 deaths, and several states remain almost COVID-free despite the outbreaks in Sydney and Melbourne.

But the rapid spread of the Delta variant in New South Wales and a slow vaccine rollout has left the country vulnerable to a new wave of infections.

Only around 24% of people above 16 years of age are fully vaccinated.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; additional reporting by Colin Packham in Canberra, Editing by Stephen Coates, Richard Pullin and Sam Holmes)

Australia’s Victoria extends Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown for 2nd week

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)

Australians shelter from bushfires as political heat climbs

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Firefighters battled hundreds of bushfires across Australia on Thursday as scores of blazes sprang up in new locations, triggering warnings that it was too late for some residents to evacuate.

As Thick smoke blanketed the most populous city of Sydney for a third day, residents were urged to keep children indoors, stepping up pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to tackle climate change.

By early afternoon, dozens of fires were burning across the southeastern state of Victoria and temperatures of 40.9 Celsius (105.6 F) in Melbourne, its capital, matched the hottest day on record in 1894, Australia’s weather bureau said.

Authorities warned residents of towns about 50 km (31 miles) north of Ballarat, the state’s third largest city, that it was too late for them to evacuate safely.

“You are in danger, act now to protect yourself,” fire authorities said in an alert. “It is too late to leave. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately.”

Blazes across several states have endangered thousands of people, killing at least four people this month, burning about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroying more than 400 homes.

The early arrival and severity of the fires in the southern hemisphere spring follows three years of drought that experts have linked to climate change and which have left bushland tinder-dry.

With 10 days remaining to the official start of summer, extreme temperatures and high winds have sparked wildfires in new areas, even as firefighters tracked the crisis across the mainland, the Northern Territory and the island of Tasmania.

In Victoria, power to more than 100,000 homes was knocked out amid lightning strikes and strong, gusty winds of more than 110 kph (68 mph) that knocked tree branches into power lines, ahead of a cool change expected to bring relief in the evening.

The extensive damage was likely to leave some customers without power through the night as utilities worked to restore networks and fix downed powerlines, a spokeswoman for power provider Ausnet said.

State authorities issued its first Code Red alert in a decade, signifying the worst possible bushfire conditions, warning that should a fire start it would be fast moving, unpredictable and probably uncontrollable.

In the state of New South Wales, strong winds blew smoke from 60 fires still burning over much of Sydney, shrouding the harbor city and its famous landmarks in thick smog.

The state imposed tough new water curbs in Sydney from Dec. 10, when a key dam is expected to be down to 45% capacity. Residents face fines if they use hoses to water their gardens and wash their cars.

CLIMATE POLITICS

The unrelenting conditions have sharpened attention on the climate change policies of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who rejected any link.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon, and we’re doing our bit as part of the response to climate change,” Morrison told ABC radio.

“To suggest that, with just 1.3% of global emissions, that Australia doing something differently – more or less – would have changed the fire outcome this season, I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”

Morrison’s conservative government has committed to the Paris Agreement for a cut in emissions from 26% to 28% by 2030, versus 2005 levels. Critics say current projections suggest it will miss that target and have urged remedial steps.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez)

Gas-laden truck set afire, three stabbed, one dead in Australia terror attack

A burnt out vehicle is surrounded by police tape on Bourke Street in central Melbourne, Australia, November 9, 2018. AAP/James Ross/via REUTERS

By Tom Westbrook and Sonali Paul

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A Somali-born man set fire to a pickup truck laden with gas cylinders in the center of the Australian city of Melbourne on Friday and stabbed three people, killing one, before he was shot by police in a rampage they called an act of terrorism.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, without providing any evidence.

The utility truck carrying barbecue gas cylinders burned on busy Bourke Street just before the evening rush hour as the driver stabbed bystanders and attacked police.

The cylinders did not explode and the fire was put out in 10 minutes, by which point the attack was over.

“We are still trying to piece together whether the vehicle was lit then he got out the car or whether he got out the car and then the vehicle took flame,” Victoria Police Commissioner Graham Ashton told reporters.

Video posted to Twitter and broadcast on television showed the man swinging a knife at two police officers, while his truck burned in the background.

One of the officers shot the man and he collapsed to the ground clutching his chest, the video showed. Other footage showed two stab victims lying on the ground nearby.

The attacker, who police said was 31, died in hospital, as did one of the victims, Ashton said. “From what we know of that individual, we are treating this as a terrorism incident,” he said of the attacker.

Asked about what the attacker had been planning, Ashton referred to the gas cylinders in the car and said: “You could make certain assumptions from that.”

Victoria police declined to comment when contacted about Islamic State’s claim. The militant group also claimed responsibility for a deadly siege in the city in 2017 when a Somali man was killed by police after taking a woman hostage.

Ashton said there was no longer a threat to the public, but that security would be boosted at horse races and Remembrance Day memorials over the weekend.

Policemen stop members of the public from walking towards the Bourke Street mall in central Melbourne, Australia, November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sonali Paul

Policemen stop members of the public from walking towards the Bourke Street mall in central Melbourne, Australia, November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sonali Paul

NO WARNING

Police did not identify the attacker but Ashton said the man was known to them and intelligence authorities because of family associations.

All of the victims were men, Ashton said. He declined to release their names because police were still in the process of contacting families.

Police later said the two wounded men were aged 26 and 58.

Asked if the attacker had recently traveled to Syria he said: “That is something we might be able to talk more about tomorrow.”

A staunch U.S. ally, Australia has been on alert for such violence after a Sydney cafe siege in 2014, and its intelligence agencies have stepped up scrutiny, though there was no warning of the latest attack.

Authorities say Australia’s vigilance has helped to foil at least a dozen plots, including a plan to attack downtown Melbourne at Christmas in 2016.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement released on Twitter: “Australia will never be intimidated by these appalling attacks.”

TEN MINUTES OF CHAOS

Video posted to social media showed chaotic scenes as bystanders scattered while the attacker fought with police and his victims lay bleeding on the footpath.

One man charged at the tall attacker, who was wearing a long black shirt, with a shopping trolley just before police drew their weapons.

A witness, Markel Villasin, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio: “Bystanders were yelling out ‘just shoot him, just shoot him’.” They did.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the attack was “an evil, terrifying thing that’s happened in our city”.

Warning text messages were sent after the attack and police sealed off the downtown area, usually busy with shoppers and diners on a Friday evening. Some cordons were lifted later, though the immediate crime scene would be sealed until Saturday, police said.

Memories remain fresh of a fatal but not terror-related attack on the same street last year, in which a man drove his car at pedestrians at high speed, killing six people and wounding about 30. That prompted the city to install hundreds of security bollards. The driver is on trial.

In December 2014, two hostages were killed during a 17-hour siege by a “lone wolf” gunman, inspired by Islamic State militants, in a cafe in Sydney.

(Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Australia police say don’t suspect terrorism after car plows into pedestrians

Australian police stand near a crashed vehicle after they arrested the driver of a vehicle that had ploughed into pedestrians at a crowded intersection near the Flinders Street train station in central Melbourne, Australia December 21, 2017.

By Melanie Burton and Byron Kaye

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – An Australian man of Afghan descent with a history of mental health issues drove a car into Christmas shoppers in the city of Melbourne on Thursday, injuring 19 people, but police said they did not believe the attack was terror-related.

In January, four people were killed and more than 20 injured when a man drove into pedestrians just a few hundred meters away from Thursday’s attack. That too was not a terror attack.

Jim Stoupas, the owner of a donut shop at the scene, told Reuters the vehicle was traveling up to 100 kph (62 mph) when it drove into the intersection packed with people, hitting one person after another.

“All you could hear was just ‘bang bang bang bang bang’ and screams,” Stoupas said in a telephone interview, adding the car came to rest by a tram stop.

Police said they detained the 32-year-old driver, an Australian of Afghan descent with a history of assault, drug use and mental health issues.

“At this time, we don’t have any evidence or intelligence to indicate a connection with terrorism,” said the acting chief commissioner of Victoria State, Shane Patton.

Four of the injured were in critical condition, including a pre-school aged boy who suffered a head injury.

Police also detained a 24-year-old man at the scene who was filming the incident and had a bag with knifes.

Patton said it was “quite probable” the 24-year-old was not involved.

The men had not been charged and their names have not been released by police.

The attack took place on Flinders Street, a major road that runs alongside the Yarra River, in the central business district of Australia’s second-biggest city.

Melbourne has installed about 140 concrete bollards in the city center to stop vehicle attacks by militants similar to recent attacks in Europe and the United States.

“We’ve seen an horrific act, an evil act, an act of cowardice perpetrated against innocent bystanders,” said the state premier, Daniel Andrews.

Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, has also installed concrete barricades in main pedestrian thoroughfares.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and the emergency health workers who are treating them,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a post on his official Twitter account.

Australia has been on a “high” national threat level since 2015, citing the likelihood of attacks by Australians radicalized in Iraq and Syria.

Two hostages were killed during a 17-hour siege by a “lone wolf” gunman, inspired by Islamic State militants, in a cafe in Sydney in December 2014.

 

(Reporting by Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE and Byron Kaye in SYDNEY; additional reporting by Sonali Paul and Paulina Duran; writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)