The remote Outback town of Alice Springs has become the latest Australian region to enter a lockdown as the delta variant spreads across the country, sparking criticism of the government’s tardy vaccine rollout.

The outbreak in the town of about 25,000 people in the center of Australia, believed to have emerged from a mining site, is raising fears that the nation’s vulnerable indigenous population is now facing its greatest threat from the pandemic.

“I know it is sudden and shocking — I am sorry about that, but we cannot afford to wait a minute longer,” Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner told reporters on Wednesday while announcing the 72-hour snap lockdown. He urged indigenous communities to remain calm, saying they would be supplied with groceries and medicines.

Since the weekend, more than 12 million Australians have been ordered to stay home in cities across the country, including the state capitals of Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.

New South Wales state on Wednesday recorded 22 new local cases from the day before as it strives to overcome the nation’s most serious outbreak in Sydney; South Australia state announced it won’t immediately enter a lockdown, despite five new cases also linked to the Outback mine site.

Raising pressure

The new lockdown order in Alice Springs will increase criticism of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government’s vaccine rollout, with some health authorities and political rivals saying it’s been too slow and disorganized.

“The messaging has really been mixed and I think Australians don’t know which way is up when it comes to the vaccine program,” president of the Australian Medical Authority, Omar Khorshid, said in an interview on the national broadcaster Wednesday. He urged more advertising funding to overcome vaccine hesitancy, adding: “It is effectively like a war, so he let’s take that war-footing.”

While there are signs that the latest lockdowns may have sparked a surge in people getting jabbed, Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker data still shows Australia lagging compared to other major economies within the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia has administered shots to cover just 14.7% of its population, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker, compared to China at more than 43% and South Korea at 19%. The country of 25 million is also well behind major economies in North America and parts of Europe, with the U.S. at almost 51%, the U.K. at nearly 58%, and Italy at 42%.

A woman walks through a quiet square in Sydney on Wednesday. | REUTERS
A woman walks through a quiet square in Sydney on Wednesday. | REUTERS

COVID-19 limbo

The snap lockdowns show the limits of Australia’s so-called “COVID-zero” strategy, which has relied on closed international borders and rigorous testing to eliminate community transmission of the virus. While nations such as the U.K. and U.S. are preparing to open up their economies after widespread vaccinations, a slow rollout in Australia means the economy, and particularly domestic tourism, remains vulnerable.

The government’s vaccination program has been hit by supply-chain holdups from contracted drugsmakers, and confused messaging from authorities about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been linked to rare blood clots. Meanwhile, the delta variant is increasingly leaking out of the nation’s hotels being used for quarantine, with the current outbreaks also linked to mining workers and airline crew who have traveled around the nation.

The government is defending its position. “Our roadmap out of this is about progressively opening up” through ramping up the rollout, Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt told Sky News Wednesday. He said messaging around the nation’s vaccination program had a “focus on safety.”

In a bid to ramp up vaccinations, Morrison announced after an emergency meeting of the National Cabinet on Monday that the AstraZeneca vaccine would be available to people under 40 years old, following consultation with their general practitioner. Previous advice was that that jab — which comprises the bulk of the nation’s supplies — should only be given to Australians age 60 and above.

On Wednesday, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk took aim at Morrison’s announcement, saying it wasn’t in line with advice from the official Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. “There has been no National Cabinet decision about providing AstraZeneca to the under 40s,” she told reporters.

Some state leaders are also pushing for urgent changes to the nation’s quarantine system, saying it’s allowing for too many non-Australian residents to enter the nation, sometimes with infections, even though the borders have been closed to most since March last year.

The Labor opposition, which had a 2-point lead over the government in a Newspoll published Monday ahead of elections due by May, is attacking the government’s vaccine policy, saying the program was too slow to start and relied too heavily on AstraZeneca contracts.

“We’ve got a prime minister who spends all of his time trying to avoid responsibility rather than take responsibility,” Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. interview on Tuesday. “That’s why Australia is hopelessly behind when it comes to the vaccine rollout.”

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