Greg Hunt says it is unlikely Australia will follow the Netherlands and impose significant lockdowns to suppress surging Omicron infections.
Asked on Sunday about the prospects of fresh statewide lockdowns given the new restrictions in the Netherlands, the federal health minister told reporters in Canberra the circumstances in Europe were quite different to Australia.
“They’re going into the depths of winter with a vastly higher case rate, and sadly, having had a vastly higher loss of life,” Hunt said. “We’re going into summer, we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and a very different set of circumstances.
“We don’t see that’s a likely situation in Australia.”
But the deputy chief medical officer, Sonya Bennett, noted that the new variant was highly transmissible: “We are seeing rapid escalation of case numbers around the globe, particularly in the UK, with the UK recording over 90,000 cases yesterday.”
Bennett said Omicron had a doubling time of around two days, “which is obviously concerning”.
The Netherlands will enter a significant lockdown from Sunday morning. The government has announced that all non-essential shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums and theatres will close until 14 January. Schools will close until 9 January and there will be limits on gatherings during the Christmas period.
Having played down the prospect of new lockdowns, Hunt was asked whether he thought the states and territories could impose restrictions on movement and gatherings either during the Christmas holiday period, or in 2022, given increasing case rates.
The federal health minister left that open. The minister said none of the state and territories had telegraphed doing that at this point, but “obviously, everyone looks and responds to the circumstances”.
But he noted: “The direction of Australia is overwhelmingly towards opening up.”
New South Wales recorded 2,566 new Covid cases on Sunday – another national record – while Victoria had 1,240 new cases and four deaths.
The deputy chief medical officer urged people to consider wearing masks in crowded indoor settings. Bennett said people should not wait for a mask mandate before taking that precaution.
“My plea to the community is we don’t need to wait for mandates to tell us what is sensible to do,” Bennett said on Sunday. “That particularly applies to masks.”
Infections are also surging in the UK, though the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, has so far resisted imposing further measures. But a major incident has been declared in London after a series of concerns were raised about the number of NHS staff off sick or self-isolating with Covid. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, made the announcement after seeing the number of cases in the city increase rapidly.
All Australian governments are underscoring the importance of people getting booster shots when they are eligible. But a new analysis by Guardian Australia shows Australia could take until well into next year to hit an 80% booster vaccination rate, with the rollout now ranking almost last out of 70 countries.
Boosters are now available to anyone who has had a second dose of a Covid vaccine more than five months ago. But Australia’s slow initial vaccine rollout meant that more than half of all second doses were administered in the final four months of 2021.
Hunt said on Sunday Australia had now passed 1.33m booster shots, with more than 640,000 administered in the past seven days.