Australia places Melbourne under 6-week coronavirus lockdown

Australian authorities will reimpose a lockdown on Melbourne to contain a rise in coronavirus cases, reversing recent measures to relax restrictions in a country that was seen a leader in managing the pandemic.

The six-week lockdown on Australia’s second-biggest city will take effect from Wednesday midnight and apply to the metropolitan region, with a population of 5m, and Mitchell Shire, a region north of the city.

People will be allowed to leave their homes to buy essential items, such as groceries, or for exercise, medical care or work. Restaurants and cafés, which had begun to reopen with social distancing measures in place, will now only be allowed to service takeaway food and drinks.

Daniel Andrews, Victoria state premier, said the new restrictions have been imposed after an “unsustainably high” number of new coronavirus cases. He reported that there had been 191 new cases in the state in the past 24 hours, up from 134 the previous day — levels not seen since the outbreak initially hit in March.

“I think a sense of complacency has crept into us as we let our frustrations get the better of us,” Mr Andrews told reporters. “I think each of us know that we’ve got no choice but to take these very, very difficult steps.”

The new measures will probably add pressure on the country’s economic recovery. The Reserve Bank of Australia announced on Tuesday it would keep interest rates on hold at 0.25 per cent. “The Australian economy is going through a very difficult period and is experiencing the biggest contraction since the 1930s,” said Philip Lowe, governor of the central bank.

Victoria imposed restrictions in March that were more advanced than other parts of Australia and helped the country attract a reputation for managing the health crisis well. Measures included shutting the international border, instituting quarantines and social-distancing measures, and rolling out large-scale testing.

The new lockdown announcement comes a day after Mr Andrews closed Victoria’s border with New South Wales, the country’s most populous state. The closure marked the first time the border had been shut since 1919, at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago.

The premier has also recently put nine apartment blocks in Melbourne that house 3,000 people into a “hard” lockdown, barring residents from leaving their flats.

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Many of the new cases have been linked to security guards hired to help quarantine international travellers at hotels in Melbourne, drawing criticisms that the state had failed to hire staff with adequate health training. The premier last week announced a $3m judicial inquiry into hotel quarantines.

Michael Toole, a professor of epidemiology at the Burnet Institute, a non-profit medical research group in Melbourne, said the broad measures were superior to the approach over the past few weeks of locking down a handful of suburbs.

“A lot of the new cases are community transmission of an unknown source — from people with no known contact,” Mr Toole said. “That’s the worry because it makes contact tracing almost impossible.”