| 21 April 2024, Sunday |

Australia COVID numbers hit a peak as Omicron outbreak strains domestic politics

On Tuesday, Australia saw a new high in COVID-19 infections, as an outbreak of the highly contagious Omicron form hampered the economy’s recovery and state officials squabbled over internal border restrictions.

According to a Reuters assessment of state numbers, the government recorded 11,264 new cases of the coronavirus in the previous day, exceeding the previous day’s peak, as it prepares for a scheduled reopening while the new version rages.

Five COVID-19 deaths were recorded, bringing the total number of deaths to little over 2,200 since the epidemic began. Authorities could not say if any of the additional deaths had anything to do with the Omicron variant.

The Omicron strain, which is more transmissible but less virulent than earlier strains, began to spread in Australia just as the country was about to reopen for good after almost two years of stop-start closures.

With the resurgence of growing case numbers despite a vaccination record of over 90% for Australians over the age of 16, state officials have reinstated some containment measures like as obligatory mask use and QR code check-ins at public locations.

The rising case numbers have also led to mandatory self-isolation for thousands of workers in the hospitality, entertainment and airline sectors – the sectors worst hit by lockdowns – resulting in cancelled theatre shows, closed restaurants and postponed flights.

The outbreak has also fueled a resumption of fractious domestic politics which defined much of the pandemic as some states resist calls to remove internal border controls.

New South Wales (NSW), home to Sydney and a third of Australia’s 25 million population, called on neighboring Queensland to shift from mandatory clinical testing at the point of origin to on-the-spot rapid antigen testing for people travelling there.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said a quarter of clinical tests in his state were “tourism tests” for asymptomatic people, bringing huge pressure of the health system, long testing queues and wait times of several days for results.

In one case, a Sydney testing clinic sent incorrect negative test results to 400 COVID-positive people, then prematurely sent 950 people negative results when 486 were actually positive. The bungle was the result of “human error, and when people are under pressure, human errors are more frequent”, said Hazzard.

He called on Queensland to scrap mandatory clinical tests immediately, rather than after Jan. 1 as planned, but the Queensland authorities said the policy was working.

Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath instead said the state would remove another testing rule for interstate arrivals: people arriving in the state would no longer have to take a virus test five days after arriving.

Australia’s international border remains effectively closed, but Australian nationals may return without mandatory hotel quarantine and the country has said it would allow certain skilled workers and foreign students in.

  • Reuters