Australia’s Covid deaths surge threatening a return to schools

Authorities say a rollout of a vaccine booster will reduce deaths. Photograph: iStock


Australia recorded another surge of Covid-19 deaths on Monday as an outbreak of the highly contagious Omicron variant peaked, and authorities warned numbers could rise further when schools return from end-of-year holidays next week.

The world’s number 13 economy is trying to strike a balance between reopening after two years of movement restrictions and coping with the highest numbers of deaths and cases of the pandemic.

Authorities say a rollout of a vaccine booster will reduce deaths, and point to a stabilisation in hospitalisation numbers as a sign the flare-up has reached its worst.

The country on Monday reported 58 deaths, most of them in its three most populous states – New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – in line with the previous day’s count but still among the highest of the pandemic.

The total number of new cases, 40,681, was well below peaks nearly three times that amount earlier this month.

“Our assessment indicates that the spread of Covid virus is slowing, our situation is stabilising and while we expect to see an uptick in transmissions associated with schools going back, this could be mitigated by the actions of you as individuals,” said NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant.

“Getting those boosters will help us,” she added.

Though all Australian states are resisting a return to lockdown, most have reintroduced social distancing measures and mandatory mask-wearing to slow transmission. But they are divided on whether and how to manage a return to school after lengthy periods of remote learning.

Students in NSW and Victoria will have to wear masks and receive regular rapid antigen tests when they return to in-person classes next week. Queensland however, postponed the return to school to February 7th, to avoid a spike in transmission.

Labour shortages

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s government is warning businesses to be prepared for labour shortages and supply disruptions as Omicron takes hold in the community. Minister for finance Grant Robertson has urged companies to ensure business continuity plans are in place and pledged government support, but warned that the impact of the variant could be severe.

Modelling showed that in a scenario of 25,000 daily cases there could be 350,000 workers a day self-isolating, he said. “What we see from overseas is the supply side of the economy is where the big impacts have been,” said Robertson. “We’re working very hard to make sure we don’t see disruption but inevitably there will be some.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tightened Covid-19 restrictions effective from 11.59 pm yesterday after evidence that omicron had begun circulating in the community. The “red” setting includes gathering limits and social distancing requirements but unlike the government responses to previous outbreaks, there is no national or regional lockdown, which means business remain open and people can travel.

Mr Robertson said the government will provide leave-support payments for businesses to pay workers who are required to self-isolate at home and unable to work because they are infected or are close contacts of confirmed cases.

Ministers will also announce plans this week to enable essential industries and companies vital to the supply chain to begin a test-to-work regime using rapid antigen testing to assist with business continuity, he said. – Reuters and Bloomberg