SYDNEY: Australia's two largest states reported sharp increases in new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday (Jul 21), a blow to hopes that lockdown restrictions would be lifted with more than half the country's population under stay-at-home orders.
New South Wales state, home to the country's most populous city Sydney, logged 110 new cases, up from 78 the day before, nearly four weeks into a lockdown of the city and surrounding areas to contain an outbreak of the virulent Delta variant.
Victoria state clocked 22 new cases, from nine the day before, its biggest increase since the outbreak began this month, as it nears its second week of statewide lockdown.
"Had we not gone into the lockdown a few weeks ago, the 110 number today would undoubtedly have been thousands and thousands," said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian at a televised news conference.
"But we need to work harder and, of course, all of us need to be on guard," she added.
Health leaders have said their greatest concern is the number of people active in the community before receiving their coronavirus diagnosis, and that the number should be near zero before lifting lockdown.
Berejiklian said that number jumped to 43 on Wednesday, double the previous day, and that she could not say until the following week whether the city would exit lockdown by a Jul 30 target.
Overnight, NSW added three regional centres about 250km from Sydney to the list of areas under lockdown after a pet food delivery driver tested positive there, raising fears of local transmission.
"We know every day who's going to walk through the door, but even the locals that do come in, they're buying for like four days, rather than buying for every single day," said Cameron Cassel, a butcher in Blayney.
Victorian authorities, meanwhile, said 16 of its 22 new cases were in quarantine during their infectious period, while exposure sites for the remaining six were "reasonably low".
"That is something that should give us all a degree of confidence and hope that this response ... is working," said Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley.
A third state, South Australia, went into its first full day of a weeklong lockdown on Wednesday, and reported one additional case.
A year and a half into the pandemic, about 13 million Australians are under hard lockdown, raising pressure on the federal government which has seen its polling at its lowest in a year due to a sluggish immunisation programme. Just more than 11 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.
The main vaccine in the government's arsenal, developed by AstraZeneca, has been recommended for use only for people aged over 60 by the country's drug regulator due to a remote risk of blood clotting, while a vaccine made by Pfizer has been restricted to over-40s due to limited supply.
"We have done as much as is humanly possible but the issue is we need more vaccines, we need more Pfizer," said New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard.
The restrictions have also hit some economic indicators which had roared back to pre-pandemic levels after the initial upheaval of early 2020. Retail sales in June dipped 1.8 per cent from a month earlier, according to government figures, nearly four times the drop foreshadowed by economists.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has been criticised for saying last year that the vaccine rollout was "not a race", went on local radio to defend the program, but acknowledged it was about two months behind plan.
"I understand there is great frustration ... but this latest Delta variant has thrown a completely new curveball on this issue, which every single country in the world is wrestling with," Morrison told one radio station.
Still, Australia has fared better than many other developed economies in keeping COVID-19 numbers relatively low, with just more than 32,100 cases and 915 deaths.