Covid restrictions in greater Sydney after ‘mystery Covid case’ linked to India, surfaces

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People wait in line at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing clinic at Mona Vale Hospital in the wake of a new outbreak in the Northern Beaches area of Sydney, Australia, December 18, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Australian officials reinstated social distancing measures across greater Sydney on Thursday, as they scrambled to find missing transmission links in a COVID-19 case connected to an Indian variant of the virus.

With many people expected to gather over the weekend for annual Mother’s Day celebrations, the New South Wales state government restricted household gatherings to 20 guests and limited aged care facility visitors to two people per resident.

Masks will be mandatory on public transport and at indoor venues. All the restrictions, which cover around 5.3 million people in the country’s biggest metropolitan area, take effect at 5 p.m. local time and are scheduled to last until Monday morning.

The measures, which also cover Sydney’s neighbouring regions of Wollongong, the Central Coast and Blue Mountains, were spurred by the detection of COVID-19 in a 50-year-old man, who passed the infection to his wife.

The case, the first local transmission in NSW in more than a month, baffled health officials given the man had no known links to high-risk jobs or people.

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Testing has determined the man was infected with a variant first detected in India and genomic sequencing had linked the case to a returned traveller from the United States, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said on Thursday, but there was no clear transmission path between the two people.

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

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet entered self-isolation on Thursday after he visited a restaurant at the same time as the infected person, classifying him as a close contact, his office said. Perrottet, who attended a sitting of state parliament on Wednesday, has tested negative.

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.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on Thursday, citing unidentified sources, said at least two repatriation flights will be dispatched to India every week from the middle of this month to bring home around 9,000 Australians.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, said the situation would be constantly reviewed.

“We are not going to commit to that at this point,” Morrison told radio station 3AW on Thursday.