Australia has reintroduced social distancing restrictions in Melbourne following the discovery of a Covid-19 cluster that experts warn risks derailing one of the world’s most successful efforts to suppress the virus.
Five cases of the variant first identified in India have been detected in the city’s northern suburbs, breaking an 86-day run without a locally transmitted infection outside of hotel quarantine, authorities confirmed on Tuesday.
To prevent further spread of the virus, James Merlino, Victoria’s acting premier, said that from 6pm on Tuesday everyone 12 years of age or older would have to wear masks when indoors and just five visitors would be allowed to visit people’s homes.
The Melbourne outbreak comes as Taiwan and Singapore battle a wave of locally transmitted Covid-19 infections, highlighting how even those nations that initially suppressed the virus remain at risk.
Low vaccination rates across the Asia Pacific and public complacency have left several nations vulnerable to outbreaks, even as the US and Europe begin reopening their economies, according to health experts. In Australia, just 3.6m doses have been administered in a nation of 25.3m people.
Peter Doherty, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1996, said Australia’s success in limiting community spread of Covid-19 had led to some overconfidence that the pandemic could be handled without vaccination.
“That is dangerous because we saw what happened in Taiwan, where they really had very few cases and a very low vaccination rate and then they had a significant outbreak,” he told the Financial Times.
Canberra initially hoped to vaccinate 4m people by March and complete the rollout by October. But delays in obtaining vaccines, bureaucratic snafus and growing vaccine hesitancy among the public have blighted the drive. The government said this month it planned to keep its international border closed until mid-2022.
Last week a survey by Nine newspapers found almost a third of people said they were unlikely to get vaccinated against Covid-19 in the months ahead. It follows reports of blood clot complications regarding AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which the government has approved for people older than 50. Canberra has recommended that younger citizens receive the BioNTech/Pfizer jab.
Paul Kelly, Australia’s chief medical officer, wrote to doctors at the weekend to reassure them of the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“It’s about protecting your own health, not sitting there waiting for an outbreak,” said Kelly. “The more we can get vaccinated now, the better situation we’ll be in.”
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The latest discovery of cases in Melbourne was made almost exactly a year after a deadly second wave of Covid-19 following a breach of hotel quarantine on May 26. To suppress the spread of the virus, Victoria announced a 112-day lockdown in June that included curfews and tough restrictions on movements.
Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said the latest outbreak should create a sense of public urgency to get vaccinated.
“This [cluster] is a reminder just how quickly things can change and how real the threat is of the virus,” he said, “especially for Melbourne and Victoria, which were traumatised by what happened last year”.