Delta spooks virus-free states, puts Australia's national reopening in doubt

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will on Friday try to convince states and territories to follow a national COVID-19 reopening plan as a rapid rise in Delta infections in Sydney and Melbourne stokes concerns in virus-free states.

FILE PHOTO: People walk through the quiet city centre during a lockdown to curb the spread of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Sydney, Australia, August 31, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, and the capital Canberra are in the grip of a third wave of infections which has forced more than half the country’s 25 million people into lockdowns. Most other states enjoy a COVID-free life.

The national cabinet – a group of federal and state leaders – will meet later on Friday as Queensland and Western Australia states flagged they may delay plans to open their borders even after vaccination rates reach 70%-80%, national cabinet targets agreed in July here for the relaxation of some restrictions.

Currently only 36% of Australians are fully vaccinated.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who had suggested she may not reopen borders until all children under 12 are vaccinated, on Friday said she needs to see detailed modelling on how COVID-19 affects children before any decision to relax border rules.

“I stand by what I believe in … I’m asking very simple questions here of (Prime Minister) Scott Morrison and from the national cabinet,” Palaszczuk told reporters in Brisbane.

“It is only fair and reasonable that we have a constructive debate in this country and rather than picking fights and attacks, let’s have a decent, educated conversation,” she said after her comments drew criticism from the federal government.

Australia plans to open vaccinations to all children aged 12 to 15 from Sept. 13. No country has started vaccinating children under 12.

The tussle between states and federal government comes as Morrison wants an end to lockdowns and an economic turnaround ahead of an election next year.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told Nine News on Friday that Palaszczuk was “focusing on the fear side rather than on the factual, calm analysis that needs to be undertaken on educating the population”.

RAPID DELTA SPREAD

Queensland and Western Australia have said they had agreed to the national reopening targets when cases in New South Wales were low. It reported its worst day of the pandemic on Friday fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant, with a record 1,431 cases and 12 new deaths.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned residents to brace for a spike in numbers as the next two weeks will “likely to be our worst in terms of the number of cases”.

The Australian Medical Association, which represents the country’s doctors, on Thursday warned hospitals were not ready here to cope with a rapid reopening and called for higher vaccination rates before lockdowns were eased.

Victoria, home to Melbourne, reported 208 new cases, up from 176 a day earlier. One new death was recorded in the state.

A total of nearly 58,200 cases and 1,032 deaths have been recorded in Australia since the pandemic began, far lower than many comparable countries, but the Delta outbreak has cast doubt on whether it is wise to pursue elimination strategies.

($1 = 1.3517 Australian dollars)

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