Melbourne imposes lockdown as second spike sparks concerns over winter transmission

Anne Gulland
Officials check drivers in their cars as Melbourne imposes a lockdown on coronavirus hotspots - Anadolu Agency
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Australian authorities have locked down parts of  Melbourne after a spike in coronavirus cases, prompting concerns of a second wave which may be a warning of what may hit the northern hemisphere in the winter months. 

Police have set up checkpoints in coronavirus hotspots in 36 suburbs in Melbourne - up from 10 earlier this week - and are considering using drones to enforce stay-at-home orders as authorities struggled to contain new outbreaks in the country's second-largest city.

The outbreaks have been linked to two hotels where people arriving from abroad have been quarantined. On Tuesday Premier Daniel Andrews announced an inquiry into the hotel quarantine scheme after claims contract workers had not followed protocols. There was even an allegation that one of the employees had sex with one of the those in quarantine. 

Victoria reported 77 new cases on Thursday, up slightly from the previous day and in line with weeks of double-digit daily increases. 

Australia had been considered to have managed the pandemic well, so far recording a total of around 8,000 cases and 100 deaths in a country with a population of 25 million. Cases peaked by the end of March with the state of New South Wales hardest hit.

The state of Victoria went from nine cumulative cases on March 1 to 1,018 cases on April 1. Spread of the virus slowed considerably for some time, then over the past month the cumulative case tally went from 1,670 to 2,380.

And as Australia - and the rest of the southern hemisphere - enters winter this has prompted concerns that the virus, which most experts believe is more likely to thrive in the cold, is having a resurgence.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1919 occurred in distinct phases, accelerating over the winter months. 

Keith Neal, emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said that the virus does not like heat or humidity but added it was too early to tell whether colder daily temperatures in Melbourne - currently between 10 and 13 degrees celsius - were linked to the outbreak.

“For the UK the main risk in winter may well be that we spend more time inside where social distancing is harder. We know that outside transmission risks are very low especially if social distancing is maintained,” he said. 

Prof Neal added that Australia did not see a large number of cases in the initial wave - this might have influenced a rise in cases now. 

Professor Jose Vazquez-Boland, chair of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, said the peaks now detected in the southern hemisphere were a "stark warning of what is coming next which I hope will not be ignored as has happened before.

“We have to be clear that the only way we have to control new Covid-19 outbreaks and epidemic waves, and to attempt eradicating the coronavirus in the absence of a vaccine, is the mass, systematic, regular screening of the population for subclinical carriers, which is where the bulk of the transmission comes from.”

Professor Hamish McCallum from the school of environment and science at Griffith University in Queensland, said Melbourne’s outbreak was “clearly a second wave”.

"The question is whether it is a ripple or the start of a tsunami. Certainly, the rise in daily reported cases looks qualitatively very similar to the initial wave in March. However, this does need to be viewed in terms of the increased testing and relaxation of the criteria for testing,” he said.

Prof Grffiths added that Victoria may have simply been unlucky. 

“Obviously, one will expect more such outbreaks in the most populous states, but one of the features of the exponential growth that can follow an initial case in the general community is that it can rapidly lead to a large number of total cases,” he said. 

Victoria police commissioner Shane Patton promised a heavy presence in "high-volume public places" and said police may even use drones to track down people travelling for reasons other than work, school, healthcare and grocery shopping.

"People will not know where we will be, they will not know how long we'll be there for, but they'll be intercepted," he said.

Most states have said they will reopen their internal borders except to Victoria. Neighbouring New South Wales, the most populous state, has kept its border open except to people arriving from the hotspots.

"I'm obviously concerned about the outbreak, and I'm pleased that the premier has taken the action he's taken by putting in place the lockdown for the outbreak in those suburbs," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a televised news conference.

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