Australia’s Victoria state reported just three new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, its lowest single-day rise in more than a week, a day after a snap lockdown in the state capital of Melbourne was extended for another week.
Australia’s second most populous state has endured four lockdowns since the pandemic begun, the longest running for more than 100 days late last year.
Under mounting pressure and with an election likely within a year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday announced a plan to pay up to A$500 ($387) a week to people in lockdown.
Morrison said the payments would be given to people over the age of 17 who cannot work from home and who have less than A$10,000 in liquid assets.
Australia introduced a wage subsidy scheme at the beginning of the pandemic but it ended in March and the government resisted calls for a temporary reintroduction of the measure.
Snap lockdowns, international and regional border curbs and tough social distancing rules have largely helped Australia keep its COVID-19 figures relatively low, at 30,130 cases and 910 deaths.
But Morrison is being criticized for a slow vaccine rollout and his refusal to help state governments build COVID-19 quarantine centers, instead of relying on hotel quarantine where some lax security has let the virus spread.
Melbourne’s latest outbreak has been traced to a traveler, returned from overseas, who left hotel quarantine in the state of South Australia after testing negative but later tested positive in Melbourne.
Melbourne is now seven days into a hard lockdown, scheduled to run until June 10, with authorities saying the highly contagious variant of the virus, first detected in India, could spread out of control.
Though Victoria’s daily cases have remained in the single digits for a week, officials fear even minimal contact could help spread the variant. The three cases came from record daily tests of more than 57,500 people, bringing the total number of infections in the outbreak to 61.
The total was revised down from 63 as two cases were false positives, the government said.
The lockdown rules in parts of Victoria outside Melbourne will be eased from Thursday night due to the absence of cases there, although curbs on house gatherings will remain and masks must be worn indoors anywhere outside the home.
Melbourne’s five million residents, however, will only be allowed to step outside their homes for essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping, exercise or to get a COVID-19 vaccination until the end of next week.
“We do not do this because we want to, we do not do this because it is a choice. We do this because we have to do,” Victoria’s acting premier, James Merlino, told reporters.
New South Wales state, which shares a border with Victoria, is on alert after an infected traveler from Melbourne visited some tourist spots about two weeks ago, sending authorities rushing to track contacts.
Nearly a dozen locations have been listed as hotspots.
Australia’s vaccine rollout has been slow partly due to a lack of urgency in the community as COVID-19 has been largely eliminated and due to concern about rare instances of blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is only being given to people aged 50 and over in Australia. The government reported on Thursday there were eight new confirmed or probable cases involving serious blood clots with a low blood platelet count, taking the total count to 41 confirmed or probable cases.