COVID-19: UK virus strain triggers snap lockdown in Australia’s Brisbane

Brisbane: Australia’s third-largest city headed into lockdown and borders were set to tighten nationwide Friday, after a cleaner at a quarantine hotel contracted the UK coronavirus strain that appears to be more infectious.

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More than two million residents in the Greater Brisbane area will have to stay at home for at least three days from Friday evening, authorities said.

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“If we are going to stop the spread of this infectious strain, this UK strain, we must act immediately,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told media.

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Large queues formed at shops around the city, prompting officials to urge people to stop panic-buying.

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The incoming restrictions will still allow residents to leave home to buy essentials.

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On Brisbane’s central shopping strip, Queen Street Mall, people voiced broad support for the measures – keen to avoid the soaring case numbers seen as the variant takes hold in Britain.

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Andy McPhee, 51, a Brisbane resident who works for an international firm, said the lockdown paled in comparison to what his colleagues overseas were experiencing.

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“I don’t think a three-day lockdown is going to hurt us at all. I think it’s imperative to stamp out the virus,” McPhee told AFP.

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“One case becomes two and two cases become 10 so before you know it, it can get a bit out of control.”

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The variant, which first triggered warnings in the UK last month, appears to be more infectious than other Covid-19 strains more commonly detected in Australia.

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Several UK and South African variant cases have been detected in travellers currently under mandatory quarantine in recent weeks.

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But the Queensland case was the first to be contracted locally and is believed to have spread to a cleaner from a returning traveller isolating in a Brisbane quarantine hotel.

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The city’s lockdown signalled a return of restrictions unseen since March. Residents have been ordered to stay home and told to wear masks when leaving for essential reasons only.

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Following the announcement, authorities around the country restricted travel to and from Brisbane and tightened already tough rules on international arrivals.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison said all international travellers would now be required to undergo testing before flying to Australia.

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The already low number of arrivals would also be temporarily reduced by 50 percent and a 14-day mandatory quarantine for all travellers will be retained.

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“There are many unknowns and uncertainties in relation to the new strain, and so that’s why this precautionary approach, we believe, is very sensible,” Morrison said.

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Limited data

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Researchers are scrambling to determine just how much more contagious the British variant – known as B.1.1.7 – is, with initial studies suggesting it may spread 40-70 percent more than existing strains, although data outside Britain is limited.

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Another key question is whether existing vaccines work against the new strain, with Pfizer on Friday reporting that preliminary findings were positive and the vaccines did work.

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Before the announcement, Brisbane was among several Australian cities enjoying a return to relative normality during the southern hemisphere’s summer.

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The state of Queensland recorded no new cases of community transmission on Friday.

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But recent outbreaks in Sydney and Melbourne had forced travel across state borders to be tightly restricted again amid mounting pressure on officials to hasten the vaccine’s rollout.

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On Thursday, Morrison announced plans to bring forward the planned vaccine rollouts by weeks. They are now slated to begin in February.

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Australia has recorded more than 28,500 Covid-19 cases and 909 deaths linked to the virus, in a population of about 25 million.

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