Australia seals off Victoria state as coronavirus cases surge
Unprecedented measures taken after state records 127 new cases, as virus spreads through Melbourne
MELBOURNE: Australia will effectively seal off the state of Victoria from the rest of the country, the authorities said yesterday, announcing unprecedented measures to tackle a worrying surge in coronavirus cases.
It marks the first time the border between Victoria and New South Wales has been shut in 100 years. Officials last blocked movement between the two states in 1919 during the Spanish flu pandemic. Plans to reopen Victoria's border with South Australia have already been put on ice.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said there was no timetable for reopening the border, which will be patrolled by the military to prevent illegal crossings from 11.59pm local time today.
The state line is highly porous, with 55 roads, wilderness parks and rivers. Some businesses straddle both sides and several workers, and school children, commute daily.
Home to more than 6.6 million people, Victoria, Australia's second most populous state, announced a record 127 new cases yesterday as the virus spread through Melbourne - including a cluster in several densely populated apartment blocks.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews described the decision to close off the state as "the smart call, the right call at this time, given the significant challenges we face in containing this virus".
Police said they will use "drones and other aerial surveillance" to patrol the vast border, with large fines and up to six months in jail for people who breach the order.
After weeks of easing virus restrictions, the huge spike in community transmission has led health officials to effectively shut off some neighbourhoods from the rest of the city until the end of July.
Sixteen of the new cases were detected in nine high-rise public housing towers, where 3,000 residents were locked in their homes on Saturday in Australia's strictest coronavirus response to date.
So far, a total of 53 cases have been recorded in the buildings, which are home to a large number of vulnerable migrants.
There are concerns the virus could spread rapidly, with one health official likening the crowded conditions inside to "vertical cruise ships" - a reference to high transmission rates seen on ocean liners.
Community leaders have raised concerns about the targeted nature of the "hard lockdown", which saw hundreds of police officers deployed with almost no warning, leaving some residents with little time to stock up on essentials.
Mr Andrews said food and toys had been delivered to families, while mental health and other medical support was being provided as officials sought to test every resident over the coming days.
"This is a massive task and the message to everybody in the towers... (is) those staff - thousands of them - are doing the very, very best they can and they will continue to do everything they can to support those who are impacted by this lockdown," he added.
Australia has recorded more than 8,500 coronavirus cases and 106 fatalities, including two deaths in Victoria over the past 24 hours. - AFP, REUTERS