The Australian state of Victoria has moved to toughen border restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus from a growing outbreak in Sydney.
Sydney residents have been told to stay home after a virus cluster ended Australia’s two-week run of no locally transmitted cases.
The cases were found in the city’s Northern Beaches area, which entered a five-day lockdown on Saturday.
Since then Sydney residents have rushed to leave the city ahead of Christmas.
Thousands have travelled from the city in New South Wales (NSW) to the neighbouring state of Victoria in the past 24 hours, leading to calls for tighter border restrictions.
An emergency meeting of Victoria government officials was held on Saturday night to discuss a possible hard-border closure with NSW.
An announcement is expected on Sunday, with local media reporting that Victoria’s police force is preparing to set up border checkpoints with the help of the Australian army.
The outbreak has also forced organisers of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race to cancel the event for the first time in its history.
Sydney’s Northern Beaches outbreak grew to 38 cases on Saturday, with 23 new cases recorded in the previous 24 hours.
The new cluster emerged just days before the Christmas period, prompting concern that travel restrictions may impact festive plans.
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Until Wednesday Australia had recorded just one locally transmitted infection in the past fortnight.
The country, which is considered a relative success story of the pandemic, has recorded 28,128 infections and 908 deaths in total, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
What are the restrictions in Sydney?
The more than 250,000 people who live in Sydney’s Northern Beaches have been banned from leaving their homes except for work, exercise, essential shopping and compassionate reasons until Wednesday.
Those living in other parts of Sydney have been told to avoid the area.
The NSW government has urged all locals to wear masks in public areas like supermarkets and churches and to be on “high alert”.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian pleaded with all Sydney residents to limit their activities over the next few days and stay home “unless you really have to” go out.
“We will be considering [whether] we do revert back to some restrictions in greater Sydney, but we are still considering that,” Ms Berejiklian said.
“I just want to put everybody on notice that that is a possibility and that will depend on the health advice.”
The next five days has been described as a “tipping point” by epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws.
“We can only hope that it remains focused in the Northern Beaches, but if it goes across all of Australian than we will need more tightening,” she said.
Where did the outbreak come from?
Tests have shown that the outbreak in Northern Beaches is similar to a strain of Covid-19 found recently in quarantined travellers, state officials said.
But authorities still do not know how it got into the community.
They said it had spread after one couple failed to isolate at home while awaiting coronavirus test results.
Their December 11 visit to a popular lawn bowls club and pub in the Northern Beaches suburb of Avalon has now been identified as the “super spreader” event.
However, it’s unclear how the couple – who hadn’t travelled overseas – became infected.
Since Australia closed its borders in March, its outbreaks have largely begun with breaches in its hotel quarantine system for returned international travellers.
Such instances led to Australia’s biggest outbreak in Melbourne.