Authorities say they won’t rule out keeping Covid-19 hot spots locked down longer if it helps get on top of the “disturbing” Delta variant outbreak.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged Victorian leaders to put an end to the state’s snap lockdown “as soon as possible”.
It comes as the state recorded 11 new local Covid cases, including the Arcare Maidstone worker and resident — a man in his 70s — who were announced on Sunday afternoon.
Also among the 11 is another aged care worker and three household members of existing cases, who were in quarantine during their infectious period.
Four cases are household contacts of the West Melbourne outbreak, including three children and one adult.
The remaining case is linked to the Port Melbourne outbreak.
The infected person is a cleaner at a Queen St building. More than 492 primary close contacts have been identified and more than 400 of those have since returned negative results.
It comes as the initial 1900 close contacts linked to the Whittlesea cluster were released from quarantine on Sunday after returning a negative day 13 test.
The first cases were identified a fortnight ago and that outbreak is now likely to have been contained.
Health Minister Martin Foley urged Victorians to “stick together” to get through the challenging lockdown.
“We do know that this has been a tough, tough period for Victorians. We do know there are many challenges if we are going to stick together and get through this challenging period,” he said.
“These figures give us confidence that all the cases are linked. But as part of the way ahead, there is still much to do and still much to do about making sure we bring all Victorians along that journey.”
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday told reporters he was “hopeful” restrictions would be lifted “as soon as possible”.
“I would be urging that we move toward lifting those restrictions as soon as possible,” he said.
“Hopefully (we) see Victoria opened again soon. Particularly for those parents who are having to keep their kids at home away from school. Kids have lost enough time out of school, over the course of the last 18 months.”
Mr Morrison referenced the northern beaches outbreak in December last year, where restrictions were contained to a specific part of Sydney, before flagging cash relief for Victorians out of work.
“We will be in a position tomorrow, for Victorians affected, to go online and make those applications for the payments … I’m advised,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state government has announced a $30m package to supply people in need with emergency hardship payments.
A total of $4.5m would be allocated for emergency food relief to help food banks, student supermarkets and food bank outreach services to feed those in need.
Areas such as Monash and La Trobe, which had a large international student cohort, would benefit from the package.
HOW ‘DISTURBING’ DELTA VARIANT SECRETLY SPREAD
Victorians thought they were dealing with just one outbreak until a few days ago, when we learned a variant — not found anywhere in Australia outside hotel quarantine — had infected a West Melbourne family.
The outbreak has now grown to 14 cases and authorities are still trying to unravel the mystery of its source.
So how did it spread?
DROP-OFF IN TESTING NUMBERS
More than 24,000 test results were received on Sunday — a dramatic drop in testing numbers, even for a weekend.
Covid tests in a 24-hour period peaked at 57,519 on Wednesday last week, but just 24,265 results were received in the 24 hours to 11.59pm on Sunday.
Testing commander Jeroen Weimar said: “Testing remains an important way for us to get as much information as possible about any other potential changes of transmission.”
Mr Weimar said the state government would reduce the age for vaccine eligibility when demand slows in the other age brackets.
Health authorities have previously stated Sunday tended to be the quietest day for testing centres, but the figure recorded in the past 24 hours was the lowest since May 24, which was before Melbourne was plunged back into lockdown.
On Saturday, 29,816 test results were received, which was also down from Friday and Thursday’s figures of 36,362 and 49,439.
Dangers posed by the Covid-19 outbreak that threw Victoria into lockdown have largely passed but fears of a new Delta variant are keeping restrictions in place.
But as mystery continues over how a newer West Melbourne cluster involving the more infectious Delta variant began, health authorities maintained it was unlikely Melbourne’s lockdown would be lifted before the Thursday night deadline.
A 79-year-old Arcare Maidstone resident who lived close to two other residents previously diagnosed with Covid-19 was one of the two cases that emerged late on Sunday. An agency registered nurse who last worked at the aged care centre on Saturday was the other.
Both had been vaccinated.
Victoria’s deputy chief health officer, Allen Cheng, said extensive testing and the fact three weeks had passed since the initial Whittlesea infections occurred meant concerns were easing that there may be undetected chains of transmission.
However, Professor Cheng said the “upstream” risks of a separate West Melbourne cluster revealed on Thursday to involve the Delta coronavirus variant was now the primary concern preventing an easing of restrictions.
“It is fair to say that, with the passage of time, we get more comfortable with unknown sources of cases if they have no transmission going on after one to three weeks,” Professor Cheng said.
“We always have a baseline level of concern where we don’t know where there is a case … but I think we are more worried about the origin of the Delta variant at this stage.
“For these cases that we can’t find who gave them the infection, particularly the family who returned from Jervis Bay, we are concerned about who was it that might have given them the infection and therefore could there be other infections related to that.”
Health investigators are continuing the search for answers as to how the Delta variant entered the community, trawling through genetic sequencing results from labs across the country hoping for even a partial match.
The West Melbourne outbreak grew to 10 cases infected with the Delta variant after another was confirmed overnight on Saturday.
The case was a teacher at North Melbourne Primary School where 98 per cent of those tested from the tier 1 exposure site had returned negative results but would remain in quarantine.
There were no new cases for the Whittlesea outbreak, which has 29 infections, while the Port Melbourne cluster rose to 30, including a person who was already isolating.
Unexpected waste water detections prompted calls for residents in Aberfeldie, Essendon, Essendon West, Flemington, Footscray, Kensington, Maribyrnong, Moonee Ponds, Parkville and Travancore to come forward for testing even if they had the mildest symptoms.
“This new detection is of interest because there are no confirmed cases in that area,” Professor Cheng said.
Arcare chief Colin Singh said the latest Covid-positive Maidstone resident previously received both doses of the Pfizer vaccination, while the nurse only had her first dose of the vaccine.
Both were asymptomatic but the resident will be transferred to hospital.
“Further testing will take place tomorrow, with the indication that it will occur every two days while we manage this outbreak,” he said.
NO CLOSER ON LOCKDOWN DECISION
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton could not reveal if Melbourne would released from lockdown early, saying those decisions were made on a “day by day basis”.
“As I’ve always said, we’re at numbers every day, we make those decisions on a day by day basis,” he said.
“I don’t know what today will bring in terms of new notified cases. It is good news that nine of 11 cases are effectively in quarantine.”
Prof Sutton said “nothing was off the table” when asked whether certain Melbourne Covid-19 hot spots could remain locked down while other areas ease restrictions later in the week.
“I don’t want to be in a situation where we open up to a point where it’s out of control. These 11 new cases today is what has happened after a week and a half of a very stringent lockdown.
“I can’t tell you what an alternative universe would look like if we hadn’t locked down, but you don’t have to have an overactive imagination to imagine that if you had the opportunity for any number of people to come to your household every day of the last 10 days that it might look very different.”
Prof Sutton said this coming Queens Birthday long weekend wasn’t a particular worry.
“It is good news that we have no significant new exposure sides out of all the positive cases today,” he said.
“That is something I’d expect to see more and more of as days go by. The long weekends should have the same messages for everyone.
“It is certainly not a snap back to large gatherings and a full MCG. People need to consider all of those key messages around isolating if they have symptoms and getting tested and all of the other messages that we have.”
CHILDREN TOLD NOT TO WORRY
Prof Sutton said he said he was no closer to identifying how the West Melbourne cluster — which includes several children — began.
But he assured people that while several children had tested positive for the virus, it was “rare” for them to become seriously ill.
“Children do not need to be worried,” he said.
Serious illness can happen with anyone (but) it is rare for kids, kids overwhelmingly get mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
“It does not mean they can’t transmit — we don’t need to isolate or quarantine them — but they overwhelmingly get mild illness and none of them have required hospitalisation.”
VICTORIA HOARDING VACCINE DOSES
Victoria has held back hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 vaccines for second doses even though the Commonwealth is already storing those supplies.
As of Sunday, the state had only administered 613,000 out of 980,000 doses it had on hand, frustrating the federal government as Victoria called for extra supplies and struggled to keep up with demand during the latest outbreak.
The growing stockpile has prompted Scott Morrison to encourage the states to use up the doses they are given.
HOW PUBLIC TRANSPORT COULD BE MORE COVID-SAFE
A leading public health expert is calling for QR codes to be used across Victoria’s public transport network to help with contact tracing.
More than 20 public transport sites — including bus and train services in Melbourne’s west and north — have been listed as tier 1 and 2 exposure sites during the latest outbreak.
Currently, only registered myki cards and station CCTV footage are used to help identify commuters who may have been exposed to coronavirus. An extra 445,000 myki cards have been registered since January, with a total of 2.28 million registered on the network. But only 44 per cent of all mykis being used across the network are registered.
NEW ROUND OF TRAVEL VOUCHERS
Ski field operators will get extra handouts to help them survive Melbourne’s lockdown amid a new round of travel vouchers to kickstart tourism when restrictions finally ease.
Up to 80,000 tourism vouchers valued at $200 each will be released to help aid struggling tourism providers under a fourth round of regional holiday enticements.
A release date or windows in which to use the travel vouchers are yet to be announced as Melbourne’s lockdown continues, with the release including 10,000 new vouchers and 70,000 that were previously allocated but not claimed.
The $16 million worth of vouchers are a key component of the latest $32.2 million tourism support package announced by Acting Premier James Merlino on Sunday.
A further $11.8 million will be spent on $4500 payments to businesses, allowing all Victorian tourism operators to be topped up so they receive a total of $7000 in support during the latest snap lockdown.
Alpine businesses will be given additional support to offset the effect on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, which is also traditionally the start to Australia’s ski season.
Businesses on mountain ski fields can receive grants up to $15,000, while off-mountain snow-related businesses can receive $5000 under a $4.4 million package.
Victoria Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani praised the package for acknowledging the “shattering” effect of long-weekend lockdowns, but said more was needed, with a road map to reopening at the top of her list.
“Overall, I think it was a welcome announcement today,” Ms Mariani said.
“The $4.4 million for the Alpine Support Program is critically urgent for our ski industry as they are really suffering by losing the start of yet another critical season.
“But what we really need to see is an expedited road map to reopening that will set us on a strong course to return to the operating environment we had prior to this lockdown.”
OVERSEAS STUDENTS HIT SNAG
A plan to bring international students to Melbourne has hit a snag after Victoria’s latest Covid-19 outbreak.
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said the government was still working with the state on its proposal to allow 120 overseas arrivals a week from late last month.
“Given the current new cases in Victoria and the significant number of cases around the world, we need to be extremely cautious about any separate quarantine programs,” Mr Tudge said.
“Officials are working to make sure the proposal meets the preconditions we have set out, including that it has sign- off from the Victorian chief medical officer and doesn’t take quarantine places from returning Australians.
“We also need to ensure that Australian students are sufficiently back on campuses.”
The proposal, based on the Australian Open system, would bring in arrivals — including students and major events workers — to a new quarantine hotel.