More than 13 million Australians are in lockdown and state borders are being slammed shut as the country scrambles to get ahead of a rapidly spreading outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid-19.
As Victoria extended its restrictions for another week and South Australia became the latest state to enter into lockdown, Labor ramped up its pressure on the Morrison government, saying the latest round of restrictions were only necessary because of a lack of vaccine supplies.
The regional New South Wales shires of Orange, Blayney and Cabonne were also put into lockdown as of midnight on Tuesday, affecting about 50,000 people.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, also accused the prime minister Scott Morrison, who has not addressed the public since Friday, of being missing in action while the country was in crisis.
The latest outbreak of the virus sparked a fresh round of border closures among the states, with Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory declaring SA a hotspot. Victoria put in place a hard border with NSW that will prevent most of its residents returning while the virus is “out of control” in the state.
On Tuesday, the NSW government reported 78 new local cases, with 29 spending part or all of their infectious period in the community.
In Victoria, the state’s lockdown was extended by another week on the back of 13 new cases, while SA is grappling with a cluster of five cases.
Queensland health authorities issued a public health alert for the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane and Mareeba, as well as for a flight from Brisbane to Cairns after a woman brought the Delta variant into the state from Melbourne.
Nationally, there are an estimated 1,360 active cases of Covid-19, with 128 people currently hospitalised.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, said the latest round of lockdowns were “challenging” but said the country was better placed than last year in dealing with the virus.
“There are challenging days but there are real signs of hope at the same time,” Hunt said.
“A year ago we went through the agony and ravages of the Victorian second wave – we’re vastly better placed this time, both through vaccinations and the lessons learned from that period. And we can do it and we’ll do it again.”
Hunt said the latest SA and Victorian lockdown decisions were “understandable” and “necessary”, and cautioned the current approach to the virus would remain in place for some time while the vaccine rollout continued.
Once vaccination rates increased, the government would be in a position to “adapt” and shift its focus to reducing hospitalisations and loss of life.
“We won’t just strip away all of the protections at once,” Hunt said.
“It’s a progressive step down in measures as we have the increase in vaccination rates.”
Cars lined up at a Covid-19 testing clinic in Adelaide’s Elizabeth Park on Tuesday as South Australia went into lockdown. Photograph: Morgan Sette/AAP
Hunt also flagged that the commonwealth would sign off on approval for children over the age of 12 to join the vaccine program once Pfizer’s application received the “double green light” from both the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.
Albanese said Australians were “frustrated” at the pace of the vaccine rollout and were worried about the threat of Covid-19, with dissatisfaction with the Morrison government now reflected in the polls.
“They want to be safe, they want to do the right thing and the government hasn’t put in place mechanisms to do so,” Albanese said.
“When there’s a crisis, when you need leadership, this government goes missing and this prime minister goes missing.”
The criticism from the Labor leader comes as the latest Guardian Essential poll shows Morrison has suffered a 15% drop in public perceptions that he is good in a crisis, and a slump in voter trust.
Amid sustained criticism of the government’s troubled vaccine rollout, Hunt said that the government was working behind the scenes to bring forward doses, pointing to the recent success in securing extra Pfizer vaccines for the third quarter of this year.
“Every week we are fighting to bring forward additional vaccines and additional doses,” he said.
Late on Tuesday, the federal government announced that South Australians would be in line for emergency assistance payments after the chief medical officer declared the state a hotspot.
Since the beginning of July, some 388,000 claims from NSW have been paid out totalling $186m. Payments to Victorian households begin from Friday.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said he believed the state’s lockdown would be successful, but that stricter measures preventing the spread from NSW were needed.
“Things are too unstable, too uncertain and frankly too out of control from a virus point of view in Sydney.”
But he said with an extended lockdown “a victory against this is absolutely in reach.” .
The WA premier, Mark McGowan, said the ongoing situation of lockdowns and border closures was not sustainable.
“I remind everyone, while lockdowns and border closures save lives and jobs, they are not the long-term solution. Vaccination is. It’s our best and only way out of this pandemic.”
Latest vaccination figures released by the commonwealth show that as of midnight on Monday there had been 10,295,444 doses administered, with nearly a million doses in the past week.
Nationally, 14.09% of the population over the age of 16 was fully vaccinated, while 35.71% have received a single dose.