SYDNEY — Australia’s second-most populous state Victoria reported just three new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, its lowest single-day rise in more than a week, a day after a snap lockdown in state capital Melbourne was extended for another week.
Victoria has endured four lockdowns since the pandemic begun, the longest running for more than 100 days in late 2020.
Under mounting pressure and with an election likely within a year, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday announced a plan to pay up to A$500 ($387) a week to people in lockdown.
Morrison said the payments would be given to people over 17 years old who cannot work from home and who have less than A$10,000 in liquid assets.
Australia introduced a wage subsidy scheme at the start of the pandemic, but scheme ended in March and the government had resisted calls for a temporary reintroduction of the measure.
Snap lockdowns, regional border curbs and tough social distancing rules have largely helped Australia keep its COVID-19 figures relatively low, at 30,130 cases and 910 deaths.
But Morrison is being criticized for a slow vaccine roll and his refusal to help state government’s build specific COVID-19 quarantine centers, instead of relying on hotel quarantine where leaks have spread the virus.
Melbourne’s latest outbreak has been traced back to a returned overseas traveler who left hotel quarantine in the state of South Australia after testing negative, but subsequently tested positive in Melbourne.
Melbourne is now seven days into a hard lockdown, scheduled to run until June 10, with authorities saying the highly contagious virus, a variant first detected in India, could become uncontrollable.
Though Victoria’s daily cases have remained in the single digits for a week now, officials fear even minimal contact could help spread the virus variant. The three cases came from record daily tests of more than 57,500 people, bringing the total number of infections in the outbreak to 63.
In Victoria’s latest lockdown, rules in regions outside Melbourne will be eased from Thursday night due to the absence of cases there, although curbs on house gatherings will remain and masks must be worn indoors.
Melbourne’s five million residents, however, will only be allowed to step outside their homes for essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping, exercise or to get COVID-19 vaccination until the end of next week.
“We do not do this because we want to, we do not do this because it is a choice. We do this because we have to do,” Victoria state Acting Premier James Merlino told reporters in Melbourne.
New South Wales state, which shares a border with Victoria, is on alert after an infected traveler from Melbourne visited some popular tourist spots in the state’s south about two weeks ago, sending authorities rushing to track close contacts. Nearly a dozen locations have been listed as hotspots.
($1 = 1.2918 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Leslie Adler and Michael Perry)