COVID restrictions return to Sydney as mystery case investigated

Authorities are trying to work out how a Sydney man acquired an Indian variant of the virus linked to a case from the US.

Australian authorities are urging people to get tested for COVID-19 after the first cases of the disease in more than a month [Saeed Khan/AFP]

Social-distancing measures have been imposed across greater Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, as officials scrambled to find out how a 50-year-old resident had been infected with an Indian variant of the COVID-19 virus.

The man was diagnosed with the coronavirus on Wednesday and also passed the disease to his wife but health officials are baffled by the case because the man has no known links to high-risk jobs or people.

With many people expected to get together over the weekend to celebrate Mother’s Day, the New South Wales state government moved quickly on Thursday to restrict the size of gatherings and mandate masks on public transport and at indoor events.

The restrictions cover approximately 5.3 million people in Sydney and its surrounding areas and are due to take effect at 5pm (07:00 GMT). They are scheduled to last until Monday morning.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian urged people to come forward for testing even if they had only the mildest of symptoms.

“What is really critical to all of us in New South Wales is to make sure we’re in alert,” she told reporters.

“We believe this is a proportionate response to the risk we have ahead of us.

The man is the first person in the state known to have acquired COVID-19 locally in more than a month.

Testing has shown that he was infected with a variant first detected in India with genomic sequencing linking the case to a returned traveller from the United States, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said on Thursday. That man tested positive on arrival in Australia and was admitted for treatment.

“We can’t find any direct link between our case, so what we’re concerned about is there is another person that is as yet unidentified that infected our case,” Chant said.

It appeared to be the first time officials had reported the local transmission of an Indian virus variant in Australia.

Tests also showed the man had a higher viral load than typically seen in infected people, potentially increasing the chance that he could spread the disease, officials said.

Authorities also asked thousands of residents in the city’s inner west to seek testing for any mild flu symptoms after fragments of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 were detected in the sewerage network used by several suburbs.

Speedy tracing systems, movement curbs and border restrictions have largely reined in the spread of COVID-19 in Australia, which has recorded 29,865 cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began.

India ban challenged

The federal government is currently under pressure to overturn a temporary travel ban on travellers, including its own citizens, arriving from India, which is recording hundreds of thousands of new cases of COVID-19 every day.

Strict border controls have helped Australia to control the spread of the disease and open a quarantine-free ‘travel bubble’ with New Zealand [File: Saeed Khan/AFP]

Australia has blocked all direct flights from the country until May 15 and citizens face jail time and heavy fines if they break the rules and return.

The move has caused widespread outrage, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s own allies describing the policy as racist and an abandonment of vulnerable Australians overseas.

An Australian court on Wednesday agreed to hear a challenge to the ban brought by a 73-year-old man living in Bengaluru who wants to return.

Christopher Ward, the man’s lawyer, said his client was challenging the decision on several grounds of constitutionality, “proportionality and reasonableness”.

Justice Stephen Burley ordered that a further hearing date would be set in the next 24 to 48 hours.

Monash University constitutional law professor Luke Beck said it would be difficult for the challenge to succeed and even a temporary injunction was unlikely.

“The Australian constitution doesn’t set out very many rights that individuals have,” he told the AFP news agency, adding that there was no explicit right for citizens to return home.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported on Thursday, citing unidentified sources, that at least two repatriation flights would be dispatched to India every week from the middle of this month to bring home an estimated 9,000 Australians currently in the country.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies