Over 3 million residents of Sydney have been ordered to stay home after a new outbreak of coronavirus ended a two-week run of no local cases.
Australian officials are scrambling to trace the source of the infection, which has been found in 28 cases across the city’s Northern Beaches region.
Tests have shown that the outbreak is similar to a strain of Covid-19 found recently in quarantined travellers, state officials said.
But authorities still do not know how it got into the community.
They said it had spread after one couple failed to isolate at home while awaiting Covid test results.
Their December 11 visit to a popular lawn bowls club and pub in the Northern Beaches suburb of Avalon has now been identified as the “super spreader” event.
However it’s unclear how the couple who hadn’t travelled overseas became infected.
The New South Wales (NSW) government has urged all locals to wear masks in public areas and to be on “high alert”.
Residents who live in the Northern Beaches have been asked to stay home until Monday and to get tested if they have symptoms. They now also face curbs on travel to the country’s other states.
Others have been told to avoid the area, and to use a mask when on public transport and in public spaces like supermarkets and churches.
Unlike in Melbourne, mask-wearing has not been a common practice in Sydney in recent months due to low rates of infection.
But NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian urged the city’s 5.3 million residents to be “extra Covid-safe” and to reconsider their social activities and movements.
“If we get on top of this in the next two or three days, all of us will have a much better Christmas,” she told reporters on Friday.
“But if we don’t… it could mean further restrictions down the track,” she added.
The new cluster has sparked national concern and cast uncertainty over many Australians’ plans for a relatively normal Christmas.
Prior to Wednesday, the country had recorded just one locally acquired case in the past fortnight.
In response to Sydney’s outbreak, several states have begun reinstating bans or quarantine restrictions on travellers from the Northern Beaches region.
Western Australia also announced an even broader two-week quarantine order for all those arriving from NSW.
Overall Australia has recorded 908 deaths and just over 28,000 infections since the pandemic began – far fewer than many nations.
It has been praised for responding quickly to the pandemic with border shutdowns, lockdown measures and aggressive contract-tracing efforts. Some failures, however, have been blamed for deaths.