SYDNEY — Australia's second-most-populous city, Melbourne, entered its sixth coronavirus lockdown on Thursday after Victoria state officials detected "multiple mystery cases" of what they suspect to be the highly contagious delta variant.
Officials announced eight new infections Thursday, some of which had not been linked to previous cases. Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters that the mystery cases were still under investigation but that the snap lockdown was the only way to prevent the outbreak from spiraling out of control.
“Because this thing moves so fast, it’s either lock it down . . . or it runs wild and it gets away from you and there is no pulling it back,” he said of the delta variant.
Australia’s closed international border, rigorous contact tracing and snap lockdowns once made it a covid success story, with about 35,000 cases in total and 932 deaths. But the country has struggled to suppress outbreaks of the delta variant. And a sluggish vaccination program has left its population of roughly 25 million vulnerable.
Andrews said he wanted to avoid a larger outbreak like the one in Sydney, where health officials reported a record 262 new cases and five deaths on Thursday.
“We don’t want that to happen here,” he said of Sydney’s outbreak, which began in June and has been averaging more than 200 new cases a day recently. “We’ve been through that already, and worse.”
Melbourne went through one of the world’s longest lockdowns last year. Cases peaked at more than 700 a day, and the city of 5 million remained shuttered for almost four months.
Its most recent lockdown, sparked by infectious furniture movers from Sydney, lasted 12 days and ended only last week.
Andrews said it was unclear if the new mystery cases were linked to that outbreak.
The lockdown began statewide on Thursday evening. Victorians are able to leave home only for food or essential supplies, care or caregiving, authorized work or education that cannot be done from home, exercise, or to get vaccinated.
Australia’s third-largest city, Brisbane, is also in lockdown after suffering its own cluster of delta cases.
The shutdowns threaten to send Australia into a second pandemic recession, with Sydney’s lockdown alone costing around $750 million per week. But officials say they cannot lift restrictions until cases drop or inoculations increase without unleashing a wave of covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The country has ramped up its vaccination program in recent weeks as supply issues have improved, but only about 20 percent of eligible adults have received two doses.
Andrews said the country’s sluggish vaccination rate was partly to blame for the lockdown.
“To be frank, we don’t have enough people who are vaccinated,” he said, “so this is the only option available.”
Andrews has criticized his counterpart in Sydney, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, for waiting more than a week to put her state into lockdown in June.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially praised Berejiklian but has recently reversed course, arguing that snap lockdowns are the only way to deal with delta outbreaks.
Last week, the prime minister unveiled a road map out of the pandemic in which lockdowns will become much less frequent once the nation fully vaccinates 70 percent of people over 16, a figure he said Australia can reach by year’s end.
Andrews, who gained fame for his marathon daily news conferences during last year’s lockdown, struck a note of weary resolve when announcing its unwelcome sequel on Thursday.
“They are incredibly painful, incredibly difficult,” he said of lockdowns. “The alternative is not being locked down for seven days, it’s being locked down for seven weeks or more, locked down until we get to 80 percent vaccination. And that may not happen until almost Christmastime.”