(Add New Zealand suspending travel in eighth paragraph)
By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE, June 26 (Reuters) – Sydney and some surrounding areas will enter a two-week COVID-19 lockdown on Saturday as authorities struggle to control a rapidly spreading outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant which has grown to 80 cases .
Parts of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, were already closed due to the outbreak, but health officials said cases and exposure sites were increasing too quickly.
“While we don’t want to impose charges unless we absolutely have to, unfortunately this is a situation where we have to,” said New South Wales Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian .
Australia has been more successful in managing the pandemic than many other advanced economies thanks to swift border closures, social distancing rules and high compliance, reporting just over 30,400 cases and 910 deaths from COVID-19 .
But the country has faced small epidemics in recent months. These were contained through quick contact tracing, isolating thousands of people at a time, or strict lockdowns.
Rugby Australia were looking for alternative venues for the Australia Series opener against France, which was scheduled to take place at the Sydney Cricket Ground on July 7.
Saturday’s lockdown in New South Wales will also include the regions of Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Wollongong, which surround Sydney, a city of 5 million people.
Under the rules in effect until July 9, people can leave their homes for essential work, medical care, study or shopping. The rest of the state will have limits on public gatherings and masks will be mandatory indoors.
“There was no point doing it for three or five days because it wouldn’t have done the job,” Berejiklian said at a press briefing.
New Zealand halted non-quarantine travel from Australia for three days on Saturday, saying there were too many cases and outbreaks. The two neighbors, who keep their borders closed to the rest of the world, began free travel in April.
The conservative state government of Berejiklian was reluctant to impose the lockdown, but a growing number of health experts have called for it, as Australia grapples with its vaccination rollout.
Michael Kidd, Australia’s deputy chief medical officer, said 28% of people aged 16 and over received their first COVID-19 vaccine. Of the 7.2 million doses administered, 5.8 million were first doses.
Although free, vaccines are currently only available to people over 40 and those belonging to groups at risk due to their health or work. The Pfizer Inc vaccine is given to people aged 40 to 59, and the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine to older people.
On Saturday, the case of a worker at the Granites gold mine in the Tanami Desert, Northern Territory, prompted the territory’s authorities to order the isolation of more than 1,600 people in three states that had had contacts with the worker.
The mine, owned by Newmont Corp, was closed. (Additional report by Praveen Meenon in Wellington; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by William Mallard)