COVID-19 spreads to NSW as the Australian Defence Force is called in to help patrol border
Two suspected coronavirus cases are being investigated in the Albury area as NSW prepares to close its border with Victoria over the COVID-19 outbreak in parts of Melbourne.
NSW Health on Monday evening said the two possible cases had returned positive results on preliminary testing in the Murrumbidgee Local Health District, with further testing underway.
One suspected case had recently been to Melbourne but returned before hotspot travel restrictions came into force.
NSW Health is setting up a pop-up clinic in the border city of Albury from Tuesday, and is urging residents in the area with even the mildest symptoms to get tested.
It comes ahead of the Wednesday border closure, which was agreed to by the NSW and Victorian premiers and the prime minister.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had repeatedly criticised interstate travel restrictions as a handbrake on economic recovery and insisted she wouldn’t agree to border closures with neighbouring states.
She has also declared a shut Victorian border would harm Albury-Wodonga, with some 50,000 car movements between the cities each day.
There are 55 NSW-Victoria border crossings.
But Ms Berejiklian said the rate of COVID-19 community transmission in parts of Melbourne gave NSW health officials no choice but to close the border.
“To this point, the vast majority of cases around the nation have been from overseas travellers or direct contacts. What is happening in Victoria is a multiplication based on community transmission,” Ms Berejiklian told the Seven Network on Tuesday.
“That is what really concerns us and that is what made us take that difficult decision.”
Ms Berejiklian added that the border would not reopen until community transmission in Melbourne had dropped to a sustainable level.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard also announced that hotspot travel restrictions would be extended to include residents from Greater Melbourne from Tuesday.
It means they will only be able to enter NSW for limited reasons, such as getting medical care, or fulfilling a legal obligation.
Victoria on Monday had recorded an additional 127 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths.
NSW reported 10 cases, all in hotel quarantine, from 11,500 tests.
The Department of Defence will help NSW Police in what Ms Berejiklian has labelled the “mammoth task” of border enforcement.
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller on Monday said authorities would monitor border crossings across five southern NSW police districts.
“The first of these are expected to deploy to the border to achieve the NSW government directed border closure timings, pending finalising the agreement with NSW authorities,” an ADF spokeswoman told the Daily Telegraph.
Defence Force personnel won’t be directly involved with law enforcement but will support police operations.
“Defence is ready to provide support for a range of contingencies in both states and will continue to work to support states and territories when requested,” the spokeswoman said.
There are already ADF 200 personnel supporting public COVID-19 testing in the state.
NSW residents who return from anywhere in Victoria will from Wednesday be required to self-isolate at home for 14 days.
Seven emergency department staff at Northern Hospital Epping in Victoria have also tested positive to COVID-19 over the past five days, a spokeswoman said.
The emergency department is open with a temporary reduction in non-urgent elective surgery and outpatient appointments to keep it in action.
Nine public housing towers at Flemington and North Melbourne also remain in complete lockdown with 53 confirmed cases among them.
The lockdown has prompted a major employer group to warn a “Berlin Wall” between Victoria and NSW could severely hamper Australia’s economic recovery.
Federal MPs and senators based near the border have also raised concerns, with Nationals accusing state governments of punishing regional communities over the Melbourne outbreak.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the closure would pull the rug out from under the economic recovery and spark chaos.
“The border closure puts up a Berlin Wall between our two biggest states which represent more than half our national economy, and cuts in two our country’s main economic artery,” he said.
“It is a sledgehammer approach when what is required is focused strategy that is community and hot-spot based and not based on arbitrary borders that split communities.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the decision was necessary but couldn’t say how long the border would remain closed for.
“I hope it’s not for too long because it obviously has an economic impact and people’s jobs are at risk,” he told 2GB radio on Monday.
“But they’re equally at risk if the outbreak goes further than it is now.”
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