Major cities in Australia and New Zealand lifted stay-at-home orders for millions of residents Wednesday after successfully using snap lockdowns to quash outbreaks of virulent strains of COVID-19.
Authorities said swift action in Melbourne and Auckland helped contain flare-ups of the highly contagious UK coronavirus variant, contrasting with the less rigorous approach taken in Europe and other infection hotspots.
Announcing the end of a five-day shutdown in Melbourne, Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews hailed the tactic as a “short, sharp circuit-breaker”.
“If we had been open throughout this outbreak... total case numbers would be much, much higher and it is a certainty that I would not be reporting zero cases today,” he said.
Andrews’s decision allows around six million residents to leave their homes, businesses to reopen and some spectators to return for the final days of the Australian Open tennis tournament.
In New Zealand, almost two million Aucklanders will enjoy similar freedoms after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said a three-day lockdown had quelled the city’s most serious outbreak in almost six months.
“We wanted to make sure we took a cautious approach because that’s much, much better than getting it wrong and having a large-scale outbreak and a long lockdown,” she said.
Auckland is also hosting a major sporting event - the America’s Cup yachting regatta - which is expected to resume this week with crowds watching from the shoreline restricted to 100.
Both the Auckland and Melbourne outbreaks involved the more transmissible virus strain first detected in Britain.
Andrews has conceded such “hyper-infectious” variants are difficult to contain and examined tightening quarantine restrictions in Australia’s second most populous state.
While Australia has largely contained the virus, Victoria state’s Melbourne remains the country’s worst affected city, enduring more than 100 days of lockdown late last year to curb an outbreak that killed about 800.
Andrews said aggressive lockdowns may be needed again to keep the virus at bay.
“I can’t stand here and be honest with people and say this will never, ever happen again,” he said.
Ardern said New Zealand’s COVID-19 response - which involves rigorous contact tracing and widespread testing when there is a community case - had again proved effective.
The New Zealand leader has been widely praised for her handling of the pandemic, with just 26 deaths in a population of five million.
But Ardern also signaled a willingness to use more lightning lockdowns if required, saying there was no room for complacency against the “tricky” threat posed by the virus.
“There is an indescribable anxiety that comes with the daily grind of managing a pandemic and I think we all feel it,” she said.