A pre-departure COVID-19 testing facility outside the international terminal at Sydney Airport in Sydney

Australia undaunted by mounting COVID-19 cases

By Sonali Paul

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australian officials on Sunday said there was no need to clamp down on Christmas festivities even as new COVID-19 infections climbed in Sydney, with the country’s high vaccination rate helping keep people out of hospital.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was confident Australia would not need to follow the Netherlands, which has reimposed a strict lockdown over the Christmas and New Year period to curb the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

“We’re going into summer, we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and a very different set of circumstances. So we don’t see that’s a likely situation in Australia,” Hunt told reporters in a televised media conference.

The Netherlands, he said, has suffered vastly higher infections and deaths than Australia over the pandemic and is now in the depths of winter when cases were more likely to climb sharply.

“We’re well prepared and people are overwhelmingly … continuing to do an amazing job,” Hunt said, referring to the more than 90% of Australians over 16 who have been fully vaccinated.

Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, on Sunday reported a record 2,566 new cases, up from 2,482 on Saturday. Cases in intensive care remained low at 28, which state premier Dominic Perrottet said was “incredibly positive”.

The state has reported more than 11,000 new cases in the past week, quadruple the number in the previous week, sparking calls from the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and an online campaign urging the state to reinstate track and trace codes, mandatory masks and capacity limits.

“Even if Omicron turns out to be mild in vaccinated people, an explosion of cases will have a devastating effect on healthcare…Caution now so much better than regrets later,” AMA President Omar Khorshid said on social media.

However Perrottet rejected those calls saying the key metric was the number of cases in intensive care.

“It’s a time for calm. But it’s also an important time to go out and get your booster shot, because vaccination has been key to New South Wales’ success,” Perrottet said.

Total new cases reported in Australia on Sunday fell to 3,958 from a record 4,110 reported the previous day, thanks to a drop in Victoria state to 1,240 new infections on Sunday.

Victoria Deputy Premier James Merlino said while the Omicron variant was raising concern, people should just take common sense steps, such as wearing masks, to protect themselves.

“We are not changing our settings … We’re not talking about lockdowns,” Merlino told reporters.

Health officials said it was not clear yet what the split was between Omicron and Delta cases among Australia’s new infections.

Australia has fared much better than other countries in the pandemic after shutting its borders in March 2020, with around 247,000 total cases and 2,142 deaths.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Leslie Adler and Michael Perry)