Australian state under fire for slow response

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia’s leading medical group said the New South Wales state government has put the rest of the country at risk by its decision not to go “hard and early” in its response to the COVID-19 outbreak on Sydney’s northern beaches, which is suspected to have also caused new cases in neighbouring Victoria state.

Yesterday, Victoria recorded 10 new local cases, bringing active cases in the state to 29.

Trace testing has linked the new Melbourne coronavirus cluster to the New South Wales outbreak.

Australian Medical Association Vice President Chris Moy said the New South Wales government was “playing the odds” by relying heavily on its contact tracing system instead of imposing a quick lockdown to stop the spread across Sydney.

“They have put themselves and the rest of the country at risk,” Moy told Fairfax Media. “I can completely understand why Victoria has reacted (by) closing the border very quickly, because they are very worried about this.”

Victoria only recently overcame a second wave, which forced overnight curfews, lockdowns of Melbourne and other areas and which killed more than 800 people out of Australia’s death toll of 909. The state had gone more than two months without a new case until the new outbreaks over the past week.

A man films the Sydney harbour on his mobile phone. PHOTO:AP

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has resisted pressure to force Sydney into lockdown, mandate masks and ban crowds at some sporting events despite the number of cases in her state growing from none to 170 in two weeks.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely said the New South Wales government should have locked down the northern beaches outbreak 48 to 72 hours earlier than they did.

“They were slow,” he said, adding that he was also among many experts in Australia scratching their heads over why the state was unwilling to mandate masks.

Yesterday, Berejiklian relented somewhat on the mask policy. From midnight yesterday, masks are mandatory in shopping centres, on public transport, in entertainment venues such as a cinema, and fines will come into effect tomorrow.

Meanwhile, South Korea will extend stringent distancing rules for two more weeks to suppress a viral resurgence, as it confirmed its first cases of an apparently more contagious variant of COVID-19 detected in South Africa.

Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said yesterday the second highest level of distancing rules, called ‘Tier-2.5’, will remain in place in the greater Seoul region until January 17. He said the third highest level of restrictions will be maintained in other areas until then.

South Korea reported 824 new cases, raising the national tally to 62,593 with 942 deaths.

The Seoul area has been at the centre of the outbreak, accounting for about 70 per cent of the cases.

Elsewhere, the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang is testing millions of residents following a small but persistent growth in cases. The city in Liaoning province just north of the capital confirmed seven new cases of COVID-19 on the first day of the year while another case was reported in Beijing.

Wary of another wave of infections, China is urging tens of millions of migrant workers to stay put during Lunar New Year holidays, usually the world’s largest annual human migration.