Australia is grappling with several outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta variant of coronavirus, with a wave of restrictions rolling across the country and plunging some cities into lockdown for the first time since the pandemic began.
Residents of every state and territory in the country – except the island state of Tasmania – are again living under restrictions ranging from full-blown lockdowns in Sydney, Darwin and Perth, to mask mandates in some indoor settings in Adelaide and Canberra.
The scale of the outbreak is tiny compared with those in some other countries, but Australians have lived a charmed life for much of the pandemic because of the rigid rules that are often implemented at the first sign of the virus. This regime is coupled with extraordinary restrictions on its citizens returning to or even leaving the country.
The outbreak has renewed questions about Australia’s stuttering vaccination programme and limited quarantine facilities, both of which are responsibilities of the federal government.
Australia has one of the lowest vaccination rates of any developed country, with less than 5% of the population fully vaccinated, and it has only one dedicated quarantine facility, using hotels for other returned citizens.
On Monday the prime minister, Scott Morrison, met state and territory leaders and agreed on a raft of new measures to keep up with the spread of the Delta strain, including even more stringent quarantine rules, as well as a no-fault indemnity scheme for all local doctors administering Covid vaccines.
The scheme in effect opens the door for Australians under 40 to now receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine if they request it, despite official advice recommending Pfizer for anyone aged 60 and under.
Australians under 40 have so far been shut out from the Covid vaccine rollout as a result of concerns over blood clotting and a shortage of vaccines besides locally produced AstraZeneca jabs, in which the government has invested heavily.
Every returned traveller leaving the strict quarantine system will be required to a take a Covid test two to three days after leaving quarantine, as will their close contacts in those days.
After the crisis meeting with state leaders, Morrison dug in behind Australia’s strategy of suppressing Covid, insisting he was not “prepared to countenance” any reopening of Australia or relaxation of rules that would lead to deaths rates similar to those in other countries.
“It would be, I think, unwise to surrender up that advantage at this point, and preferably at no point,” Morrison said.
The centre of Australia’s outbreak is the Sydney suburb of Bondi, which has been linked to more than 120 cases, including some detected as far away as Perth, almost 2,000 miles away.
That is not the only case of transmissions from one city leading to outbreaks in another: cases from Queensland have been linked to the first cases of community transmission recorded in Darwin.
The Northern Territory chief minister, Michael Gunner, described the Delta variant as a “tricky bugger” as he decided to extend Darwin’s first lockdown for a further three days to deal with an outbreak of two cases. “The reality is we are not out of the woods yet, not by a long way,” he said.
The territory’s fierce response to its first community cases is in part due to the vulnerability of its Indigenous population, amid fears of lower vaccination rates and poorer general health within the Aboriginal community.
In South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, restrictions were introduced despite neither jurisdiction having recorded a case. In the latter, measures also had to be announced to limit panic-buying of household items such as toilet paper.
As has been common throughout the pandemic in Australia, the latest outbreak has featured prominent opposition to the sledgehammer approach of crushing the virus – including, this time, from the deputy prime minister – and the emergence of strange anecdotes about people evading restrictions.
Last week three people from Sydney left the locked-down state on a private plane, unsuccessfully tried to land in the Northern Territory, and touched down in the outback opal mining town of Coober Pedy, where they were arrested at a karaoke bar.