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‘We’re prisoners’: Australia locks out thousands more citizens as virus slip-ups mount

Fog blankets Sydney Harbor on Friday. The city is under lockdown as Australia battles outbreaks of the delta variant. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

SYDNEY — Facing outbreaks of the highly contagious delta variant and a floundering vaccination campaign, Australia moved Friday to further seal itself off from the world as its earlier success in tackling the coronavirus continued to unravel.

Officials agreed to halve the number of people permitted to enter the nation under an already strict border policy that bars entry to nearly everyone except returning citizens, residents and their immediate families, who must quarantine for two weeks in a hotel at their own expense.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has come under fire for a slow vaccination rollout, said further restricting international arrivals was “a prudent action while we remain in this suppression phase of the virus.”

“The delta strain is more contagious and so we’re seeking to take precautionary steps to overall reduce the risk,” he told reporters in his first public appearance since he began quarantining at his official residence in Canberra two weeks ago after attending the Group of Seven summit in Britain.

Unlike many countries where the virus has long circulated in the community, Australia has pursued an aggressive suppression strategy of zero transmission, with low tolerance for even single-digit daily cases.

“To a sense we’re prisoners of our own success,” Morrison said.

Effective July 14, the number of international arrivals will be cut to about 3,000 a week, dimming repatriation hopes for some 34,000 Australians stranded overseas and many more who want to visit their loved ones but can’t get on a flight. The approach — which Morrison indicated would persist at least until year-end — has earned the country the tags “hermit kingdom” and “Fortress Australia.”

People trying to reach Australia now often need to pay sky-high fares — often business-class tickets — as the strict entry caps prevent airlines from flying at full capacity.

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“Australia has heavily restricted entry of its own citizens in a way that no other democratic nation has,” said Sophie McNeill, an Australian researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The clampdown comes as recent incidents, including several breaches of hotel quarantine, have led to the virus circulating in the community again after months of near-zero cases in most parts of the country. In recent days, millions of Australians have been plunged into lockdown just as vaccinated Americans are ditching masks and Europe is lifting bans on travelers.

Australians abroad expressed exasperation at the tighter entry caps.

Kumi Miranda, a dual citizen living in Sri Lanka, hasn’t seen her two sons, aged 22 and 25, who are studying in Melbourne, since December 2019.

“I cannot visit them due to the exorbitant airfares and hotel quarantine costs. Today’s decision is truly devastating for me,” said Miranda, who is fully vaccinated and said she is struggling to understand why home quarantine isn’t an option.

“We’re paying the price of a bungled-up vaccination plan. That is simply not fair. The rest of the world is opening up.”

Ron Thorp, 54, an Australian living in Britain, has been trying for months to get back to see his father, who has terminal cancer.

“He’s 81 years old. I don’t have a lot of time obviously. I can’t wait another 18 months. He can’t either,” Thorp said in a phone interview. “Even if we get a flight, there’s the small matter of being able to return. We’re not guaranteed that if we get into prison island we’ll be able to get out again.”

Many airlines have stopped flying to Australia because the border closures have made the routes unprofitable. Thorp was booked to fly with Thai Airways in December. The flight was canceled.

Only about 6 percent of Australia’s population is fully vaccinated, the lowest rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. One factor in the slow rollout is that Australian officials advised against using the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in anyone under 60 because of the remote risk of blood clots.

Sufficient supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to complete the rollout aren’t due to arrive until later in the year.

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The feeble vaccination campaign and return to lockdowns stands in contrast to Australia’s much-vaunted success earlier in the pandemic, when much of the country had gone months without restrictions, with people free to gather on beaches, in stadiums and in shopping malls, mask-free.

“We’ve squandered the head start we got in 2020. It has been a policy disaster,” Tim Soutphommasane, a political commentator and professor at the University of Sydney, wrote in the Guardian on Friday. “Australia can’t defeat the pandemic by jumping in and out of lockdown, or by sealing ourselves indefinitely from the rest of the world.”

Morrison on Friday outlined a pathway to switch from virus suppression to focusing on reducing the risk of serious illness, but that plan hinges on an as-yet undecided target on vaccinations.

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