Australia’s two most populous states will close their shared border from Tuesday night as authorities battle to contain a spike in coronavirus cases that jeopardizes the nation’s economic recovery.
Throughout the pandemic, New South Wales and Victoria had resisted closing the border to avoid adding to economic disruption. But a resurgence of the virus, which has prompted a lockdown across 12 areas of the Victoria state capital, Melbourne, has forced a rethink.
“This is one of those precautionary measures, it is one of those things that I think will help us in broader terms contain the spread of the virus,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters on Monday. The state recorded another 127 cases of the virus overnight, and reported the death of a man in his 90s, taking the national toll to 105.
While Australia has been one of the standout performers globally in limiting the spread of the virus to less than 9,000 cases, Victoria’s flare-up — mainly amid Melbourne’s poorer and more multicultural suburbs — shows just how hard it will be to eradicate without a vaccine.
Victoria has ordered residents across 12 areas of Melbourne to stay at home, other than for work, exercise, medical appointments or essential shopping. At the weekend, authorities took the toughest coronavirus control measures in Australia to date, with 3,000 residents of nine public-housing towers under hard lockdown and barred from leaving their apartments.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the measures were necessary to avoid a spread of the virus among people, many with underlying health problems, living in cramped conditions. There are 53 cases of the virus in the towers, up 16 overnight.
“There are people living in large concentrations,” Kelly said. “These are vertical cruise ships, we need to take particular notice and pay particular attention to make sure the spread is minimized.”
Authorities are racing to test everyone in the towers and provide them with food and other essential items.
Victoria has experienced more than two weeks of double-digit daily increases in new COVID-19 cases after social distancing restrictions were eased, jeopardizing its economic recovery and prompting other states to delay plans to open their borders.
Deloitte Access Economics warned in a report Monday that Victoria is likely to experience the largest downturn in Australia “given its current spike in cases, as well as that state’s dependence on migration and on foreign students in an age of lockdowns and closed borders.”
Authorities are probing alleged security lapses at Melbourne hotels used to quarantine overseas arrivals, including claims guards slept with guests, amid concerns the breaches have contributed to the spike in infections. Unlike most states and territories which enlisted their police forces to regulate the quarantine, Victoria contracted out the task to security firms.
The nation’s other states and territories, most of which haven’t recorded community transmissions for weeks have kept their borders closed to Victoria even as they open to others.
Andrews said further details would be announced by the New South Wales government later. A permit system would allow people living in border communities to travel back and forth for work, he said.
The decision to close the border was reached after a discussion with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, he said. The border will be policed by NSW authorities.
“We agree that this is the best thing to do at this time out of a sense of caution,” he said. “No one enjoys doing it but it is, I think, the right step to take at this point.”
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