SYDNEY - Australia’s two most populous states re-introduced Covid-19 curbs on Thursday (Dec 23) amid a record surge in cases and as tens of thousands of domestic travellers thronged test centres to get results necessary to travel interstate for Christmas.
New South Wales, home to Sydney and a third of Australia’s 25 million population, said it was again making it mandatory to wear masks indoors in public places, while venues were told to limit visitors and re-activate customer check-ins via QR codes.
Victoria, which has nearly the same population, also re-introduced a mask mandate, citing the need to reduce the stress on the health system.
The changes two days before Christmas are a stumble in the country’s plans for a permanent reopening after nearly two years of stop-start lockdowns as the new Omicron variant rages through the community in spite of double-vaccination rates of more than 90 per cent.
Hospitalisations and deaths remained low, but the explosion of infections had created a risk of healthcare workers being furloughed by testing positive, the authorities said.
More than 8,200 new cases were reported in Australia on Thursday, the biggest daily rise in the pandemic, eclipsing the previous high of some 5,600 a day earlier. The bulk of cases are in the most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria.
"Today’s changes are modest, cautious and take a precautionary approach as we move through this holiday period to the end of January," New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet told reporters.
Until Thursday, Mr Perrottet had urged the state to hold steady on a plan, agreed between state and federal leaders, to remove restrictions once the vaccination rate exceeded a certain level.
Mr Perrottet had steadfastly refused to re-introduce mandated indoor mask wearing, a move called on by the country’s doctors and health workers, saying it was now time to live with Covid-19.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has vowed never to return to lockdowns, saying Australians must now take personal responsibility for managing their health.
In another change of messaging on Thursday, Mr Perrottet urged people to avoid going for Covid-19 tests if they had received a notification of being a possible contact with an infected person but were not experiencing symptoms.
With reports of hours-long wait times at testing centres, blamed on people planning to travel interstate before Christmas, Mr Perrottet said that "this is putting enormous pressure on the system... but we need to make sure those people who need to get tested get tested in a timely way".
Most states require travellers to have a negative test result 72 hours before departure in order to be allowed entry, even as Prime Minister Morrison urged them to ease the testing requirement, which he said was redirecting resources that could be used to ramp up the roll-out of the booster shots.
Despite the spike, the number of people in hospitals remains far lower than during the Delta wave as active coronavirus cases in the country neared 44,000.
Around 800 Covid-19 patients are in hospitals across the country as at Monday but only 37 of those are Omicron cases, the Health Department said in an e-mailed response. Only one case is in intensive care and no deaths have been reported.
Mr Morrison had been asking people to focus more on the number of people in hospitals than the total infections and resisted calls for a national mandatory rule to wear masks indoors.
But Victorian state authorities said they would make masks mandatory indoors from Thursday night, while Queensland state also has mandatory mask rules, with health officials saying the spread of the virus has become "inevitable and necessary".
Queensland Chief Health Officer John Gerrard told reporters: "In order for us to go from the pandemic phase to an endemic phase, the virus has to be widespread. We all have to have immunity."
Even amid the Omicron wave, Australia's tally of 273,000 infections and 2,173 deaths is far lower than many countries.