Hundreds of health workers in isolation as Delta hits Australian state of Queensland

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Hundreds of critical health workers in the Australian state of Queensland have gone into isolation as the country battles a growing Delta outbreak, while New South Wales raced to administer 6m vaccine doses before the scheduled end of lockdown in less than four week’s time.

Queensland’s chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, said health workers in quarantine included all the cardiac surgeons at the Queensland Children’s hospital, leading to delays in surgery and outpatient work.

Millions of Queenslanders in 11 local government areas remain in lockdown, with nearly 8,000 in quarantine in relation to the outbreak.

The state recorded 16 new local cases on Tuesday, bringing the number of cases to 47 in a cluster involving exposure sites at several schools and at least three major Brisbane hospitals.

Queensland had so far sidestepped major outbreaks thanks to its strict policy of state border closures. The current lockdown can be traced back to two returned travellers – one from the UK, one from Indonesia – who flew to Brisbane at the end of June. Infections then spread to schools in the area.

In greater Sydney, a further 199 local cases were recorded, and the NSW leader, Gladys Berejiklian, said she could not yet say whether cases had peaked after more than five weeks of stay-at-home orders. “The case numbers are anyone’s guess and we don’t know yet – and I have to be honest about this – whether we’re through the worst of it or not,” she said.

Vaccinations remain the focus of the NSW response, aiming for 6m doses administered by the end of August. About 3.9m doses have already been provided. Berejiklian said: “Our strategy remains to protect human life, to reduce hospitalisation and that’s why the vaccine strategy is key to that. It’s to keep people out of hospital and slow the spread down and have people infect their loved ones.”

A near-deserted Brisbane city centre after it went into lockdown at the weekend.
A near-deserted Brisbane city centre after it went into lockdown at the weekend. Photograph: Jono Searle/Getty Images

The federal government earlier dismissed an opposition Labor party suggestion to offer a $300 incentive to boost vaccination rates across the country and offer a route out of persistent lockdowns. The scheme would cost $6bn. The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said “vaccinations are a race Australians can no longer afford to lose”, a reference to prime minister Scott Morrison’s claim that the rollout was “not a race”.

Just over 15% of the population is fully inoculated, with 17% having had a first dose, amid a sluggish rollout, shortages of the Pfizer vaccine and hesitancy about using AstraZeneca.

The latest Guardian Essential poll has found most Australians would be comfortable with vaccination passports to enable future domestic travel, and with entertainment venues requiring proof of inoculation before entry. Sixty-two per cent thought Australia should reopen its borders and remove all restrictions only once at least 80% of the population had been fully vaccinated.

Berejiklian has said as a precondition for reopening the state she wants to see “close to zero” infectious cases in the community before the lockdown lifts – but she has refused to be more specific.

Meanwhile, a major Sydney hospital and two nursing homes are dealing with outbreaks that have taken more health care workers out of action. Thirty-six staff at Westmead hospital are reportedly in isolation after a vaccinated colleague who worked three shifts last week while infectious tested positive. There are now 232 Covid-19 patients in Sydney hospitals.

Outbreaks at the Wyoming nursing home in the Sydney suburb of Summer Hill rose to 18 residents and two staff members, and a contract staffer at another nursing home, St Hedwig Village in Blacktown, has also reportedly tested positive for the virus but no other cases have been identified so far.

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