Australia hit by Indian Covid variant: Melbourne faces lockdown

Australia is hit by Indian Covid variant outbreak: Melbourne faces lockdown while hundreds are forced to isolate after one infected man sat among 28,000 sports fans at MCG stadium

  • Nine cases of Indian covid variant recorded in Melbourne within past two days 
  • City on high alert after a covid infected man sat among 23,000 football fans 
  • Restrictions – wearing masks; five-guest indoor limit – reinstated in Melbourne 
  • The latest outbreak ends Victoria’s run of zero cases for nearly three months 

Australia’s second largest city could be plunged into a snap lockdown due to a growing outbreak of the Indian covid variant. 

Melbourne today reinstated a number of covid restrictions as authorities reported five new cases of the highly contagious Indian strain, adding to four reported on Monday. 

The city was put on high alert after a covid infected man sat among 23,000 football fans at Sunday night’s Australian Football league game at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Victoria.     

A cluster of nine cases of the Indian strain have been recorded in Melbourne’s northern suburbs within the past two days, with experts fearing the outbreak may have spread further. 

Of the five Indian variant cases recorded today in the city, all were all linked to an infected man, in his 60s, who spread the virus to four household contacts – with 168 close contacts identified so far.

People line up to get tested for coronavirus outside the Royal Melbourne Hospital as the city experiences a new cluster of cases in Melbourne, Australia, May 25, 2021

This sparked a return to a series of restrictions in the city, including the wearing of masks indoors and on public transport, and limits of five guests inside a home. 

The latest outbreak ends Victoria’s run of zero cases for nearly three months and has prompted New Zealand to suspend quarantine-free travel with the state, while the neighbouring state of South Australia has imposed travel restrictions.

Victoria authorities have made face masks mandatory at indoor venues and restricted home gatherings but have so far held off banning spectators at sports events. 

Victoria was the hardest-hit state during a second wave late last year, accounting for about 70 per cent of total cases and 90 per cent of deaths in Australia.  

Crowds pictured (pre-covid, stock image) at MCG stadium in Melbourne, Australia, where a covid infected man sat among 23,000 football fans at Sunday night’s Australian Football league game

Anyone seated in the area between bays M1 and M16 have been advised to get tested and isolate until they return a negative result, with all fans told to watch for symptoms. The infected case sat in Zone 4, Level 1 of the Great Southern Stand at the Punt Road end of the ground, with 23,000 spectators at Sunday night’s game (pictured, a seating map of the MCG)

An alert was been issued after an infected case attended the AFL game (pictured) between Collingwood and Port Adelaide at the MCG on Sunday

Victoria’s chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton today said: ‘[The Indian covid variant] is by no means one to be complacent about. It is at least as infectious as the so-called UK variant.

‘It’s been called the double-mutant variant, in fact it’s got 15 mutations, two of which are a concern that relate to transmissibility.’

New restrictions in Melbourne, Victoria:

  • Maximum of five visitors per household 
  • Maximum of 30 people gathering outside
  • Masks must be worn indoors and on public transport
  • People travelling from Melbourne to other areas must carry restrictions with them 
  • Schools and workplaces will remain open with the new restrictions applied 
  • Dancefloors remain open but people must wear masks while dancing 

Genomic sequencing has linked the latest cases to a man from Wollert, a suburb in northern Melbourne, Victoria, who caught the virus in a hotel quarantine in Adelaide, in the state of South Australia, two weeks ago.

But experts have struggled to find several missing links between the initial infection and how it has been transmitted to other cases, leading to fears the city could once again be plunged into lockdown if the outbreak isn’t contained. 

It has also emerged that none of three cases aged over-50 had been vaccinated despite being eligible for the jab – which can help stop transmission. 

Leading expert Professor Sharon Lewin from the Doherty Institute expressed ‘a number of issues of concern’ with the latest outbreak in Melbourne – warning that the huge gap between an initial case in hotel quarantine and the new infections could lead to a lockdown.

‘First of all, it is nine cases with no new transmission for a long time in Victoria, and it is the Indian variant which we know is more infectious,’ she told ABC’s 7.30.

‘There’s also been quite a bit of a gap between where we think this came from, which was the initial quarantine hotel in Adelaide and now these cases are appearing with quite a significant gap so there is a lot of work to look at steps in between for those transmission events.’ 

Professor Lewin is also concerned about the low vaccination rate, with fears growing that not all Australians will be vaccinated by the end of the year.

She said: ‘Simply because… you need to get people vaccinated to prevent severe infection and hospitalisation and death. We don’t have enough people vaccinated.’ 

A snap lockdown hasn’t been ruled out by the acting Victorian Premier James Merlino, who said: ‘This is a responsible step that we need to take to get on top of this outbreak. It’s about giving our contact tracers the time they need to track this matter down and get on top of it.’

Health workers are seen testing people for Covid19 at Royal Melbourne Showgrounds in Melbourne, yesterday

An urgent alert was issued in Melbourne earlier this week after one of the infected cases attended the Australian Football League game between Collingwood and Port Adelaide at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday, with hundreds of fans in certain sections of the stadium told to isolate immediately.

The talk of restrictions returning due to an outbreak has sent a chill through Australia’s sports leagues, with an entire Australian Rules football club forced into isolation and two basketball teams relocating to a northern state. 

Players and staff at Australian Football League side Western Bulldogs were isolating until they return negative COVID-19 tests, the team said, after one of the club’s staff went to a shopping centre deemed an exposure site by authorities.

National Basketball League (NBL) teams Melbourne United and South East Melbourne Phoenix will temporarily relocate to Queensland state, the NBL said.

Melbourne United will remain in Queensland capital Brisbane until their game against Sydney Kings on Saturday, while Phoenix will travel to the state’s northern city of Cairns later on Tuesday.

‘We have faced a number of challenges this season and the current situation in Victoria is just another that we need to navigate,’ NBL Commissioner Jeremy Loeliger said in a statement.

Victoria’s covid restrictions in the second wave forced more than a dozen Melbourne-based professional sports teams to relocate interstate for months on end to complete their seasons.

The country’s second-most populous state only controlled the outbreak after one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns. 

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