• Reuters, AFP-Jiji


Australian Football League clubs were ordered to isolate as authorities battled to control an outbreak of COVID-19 in Melbourne on Wednesday.

Players and staff at 10 clubs based in Victoria state, the heartland of Australian Rules football, will only be allowed to leave their homes for work, exercise, caregiving and shopping for essential supplies, the AFL said on its website.

“The AFL has reached out to clubs to advise players, coaches and members of club football departments to move into ‘COVID supplementary protocols,'” the report said.

Australia’s second-biggest city is scrambling to contain a growing outbreak, with 15 cases identified so far — including one who attended the clash between Collingwood and Port Adelaide which drew a crowd of more than 23,000 to the famed Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday.

The AFL said thousands of fans who sat near the positive case were now required to self-isolate until they received a negative test, while health officials were reviewing CCTV to determine if others had also been impacted.

The stadium is one of a growing list of venues across Melbourne visited by positive cases, leaving state health officials rushing to test and trace across the city of 5 million, which endured a devastating four-month lockdown after an outbreak last year.

AFL games scheduled in Melbourne for the coming weekend are currently allowed to go ahead with fans at up to 85% capacity, but government officials warned public events could yet face fresh restrictions.

“We are concerned about the number and the kind of exposure sites, and the next 24 hours are going to be critical if we are going to have to make any further changes,” acting Victoria state premier James Merlino said.

Melbourne-based AFL team Western Bulldogs was forced into isolation on Tuesday after a staff member visited a hotspot but they were cleared to return to training on Wednesday after testing negative.

Two Melbourne-based National Basketball League teams relocated to northern Queensland state on Tuesday.

Limits on gatherings were introduced and masks made mandatory indoors Tuesday as the virus cluster grew, while New Zealand introduced a temporary pause on its travel bubble with the state.

New Zealand’s decision has also put the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman schedule in doubt, with the Melbourne Rebels unable to travel to Queenstown to play the Otago Highlanders for Sunday’s game.

The suspension is due to be lifted on Friday evening but authorities may extend it depending on the health situation.

“If things worsen and the (travel) bubble isn’t reinstated then we will look to get some kind of travel exemption… so we will see how the week plays out,” Rebels boss Baden Stephenson told Australian Associated Press.

A protracted lockdown to control a second wave outbreak in Victoria last year forced more than a dozen Melbourne-based professional sports teams to play away from home for several months to complete their seasons.

Victoria had not recorded any locally acquired coronavirus cases for about three months before the latest cases, which are believed to be linked to a traveler who returned from overseas and became infected while in hotel quarantine.

Australia has largely been successful in curbing the spread of the virus, in part through strict border controls that limit flights from overseas and require most travelers to isolate for 14 days on arrival.

But repeated failures of the quarantine system and a sluggish vaccine rollout have prompted critics to attack the conservative government for an apparent reluctance to address the ongoing concerns.

Australia — which has recorded about 30,000 cases and fewer than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 — has so far administered about 3.7 million vaccination doses in a population of 25 million, but hopes to finish its vaccine rollout by the end of the year.

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