Australia Gets ‘Encouraging’ Start to 2021 With Fewer New Cases

Australia started 2021 with fewer new coronavirus cases recorded from the previous day, bringing some relief after Covid-19 clusters recently cropped up in Sydney and Melbourne.

Three new cases were reported overnight in Sydney in the city’s west, New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters Friday. No new infections were recorded from the Northern Beaches outbreak, which has infected 146 people, or from another smaller cluster in the inner west.

Neighboring Victoria state also recorded no new cases overnight after eight new infections were reported Thursday. The state’s capital Melbourne, which endured one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns during 2020, is again limiting household gatherings to 15 people and has made mask-wearing at indoor venues mandatory.

“Today’s news is encouraging,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Friday. “But of course the New Year does not start without its challenges. Covid still hasn’t gone away, it hasn’t taken a holiday.”

Australia has managed to largely suppress community transmission through rigorous testing and contact tracing, and by placing restrictions on international arrivals — with all returned overseas travelers made to isolate for 14 days in quarantine hotels. The new outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria are likely connected, with someone who’d returned from Sydney visiting a Thai restaurant in Melbourne. The case is then linked to other new infections in the city.

The outbreaks dampened New Year’s Eve celebrations in Australia’s largest cities. While Sydney allowed a shortened fireworks display at midnight, crowds were banned from gathering on the city’s foreshores and people were urged to watch on television from their homes.

The clusters have also caused havoc for thousands of families who traveled interstate during the nation’s peak summer holiday period as recent decisions to remove border restrictions — allowing unrestricted travel for the first time in months — were hastily reversed.

Thousands of families have been racing to return to their home states. Victorians holidaying in New South Wales faced hours-long queues in their cars as they waited to cross that border by 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 1 so they won’t be forced to isolate for 14 days in their homes.

“I don’t think at this stage closing the border between New South Wales and Victoria is a good use of resources,” Berejiklian told reporters on Friday. “We’re better off asking the community to come forward to get tested, cutting off those chains of transmission, making sure everybody has enough information about venues and about Covid-safe activities.”

There has been growing pressure on Berejiklian from some health experts to take tougher action to stem the outbreak in New South Wales, including making masks mandatory. She’s given the green light for a cricket match to proceed from Jan. 7 at the Sydney Cricket Ground between Australia and India, with crowds of up to 24,000 people a day over as many as five days.

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