Nearly seven million people in Australia’s second-most populous state of Victoria will start a snap lockdown on Thursday night, as officials blame a sluggish vaccine rollout and hotel quarantine failures for a fresh virus outbreak that doubled overnight to 26 cases.
Victoria state Acting Premier James Merlino told reporters in Melbourne that from 11:59pm (13:59 GMT), people will only be allowed to leave their homes for essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping or exercise.
The order will remain in place for seven days.
“In the last day, we’ve seen more evidence we’re dealing with a highly infectious strain of the virus, a variant of concern, which is running faster than we have ever recorded,” Merlino said.
The strain is known as B1617, and was first identified in India.
The authorities tightened limits on domestic and public gatherings and made masks compulsory on Tuesday after the first new cases emerged.
Contact tracers have so far identified 10,000 primary and secondary contacts who would need to quarantine, test and self isolate, but Merlino said that number was likely to change.
Experts say the lockdown is designed to give the team the time they need to track down contacts while curbing the virus’s continued spread.
“Contact tracing is everything, Lockdowns are designed to give that team a fighting chance,” Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation in Melbourne, told Al Jazeera.
“They are very efficient here. We have a great system. Something that I have championed all the way through is not just going to contacts of known cases but going to their contacts. In this outbreak we are going the next step again. If one person is identified as a case they’ll go to all their household members, test them and put them in quarantine then go to their close contacts, and their close contacts. They are throwing everything they can at it.”
State authorities say the federal government’s sluggish vaccine rollout was partly to blame for the latest lockdown.
“If more people were vaccinated, we might be facing a very different set of circumstances than we are today. But sadly we are not,” Merlino said.
It is the fourth time Melbourne has been plunged into lockdown since the pandemic began. Australia’s second-biggest city endured the country’s worst COVID-19 outbreak last year, which was only suppressed after nearly four months of strict curbs on daily life.
Thousands of people across the city are already self-isolating after positive cases were found to have visited dozens of locations including two separate Aussie Rules football matches, a series of nightclubs and a medieval battle re-enactment.
Australia had largely contained COVID-19 after closing its borders and imposing strict quarantines on citizens who are able to return and residents had been enjoying few restrictions.
But its vaccination programme has failed to meet targets and critics say it has left the nation vulnerable to outbreaks.
The virus has leaked from hotel quarantine facilities 17 times in six months, according to the federal opposition Labor party, which has criticised the conservative government for refusing to overhaul the system.
“If we had an alternative to hotel quarantine for this particular variant of concern, we would not be here today,” Merlino said.
About 3.7 million vaccination doses have been administered so far in a population of 25 million and the government has pledged additional batches will be sent to Victoria in the coming weeks.
Public broadcaster ABC reported vaccines were yet to be delivered to almost 30 aged care homes in the state, despite hundreds dying when the virus swept through the facilities last year.
Australia has recorded about 30,000 cases and fewer than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 – the vast majority in Victoria during last year’s second wave.