Australia must "push through" the fast-moving omicron outbreak, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, as infections surpassed the 1 million mark, more than half in the past week alone, putting a strain on hospitals and supply chains.
Although strict lockdowns and tough border controls kept a lid on infections earlier in the pandemic, Australia is now battling record infections in its effort to live with the virus after high vaccination rates.
Growing hospital admissions have forced officials to reimpose curbs in some states, as businesses grapple with shortages of staff because of sickness or isolation requirements.
Morrison, facing pressure at the start of an election year, is planning changes in the isolation rules to allow work in food production and distribution by those who have been in close contact with asymptomatic infections.
"Omicron is a gear change and we have to push through," the prime minister told a media briefing in the capital, Canberra. "You've got two choices here: You can push through or you can lockdown. We are for pushing through."
Morrison, who will submit his proposals to state leaders at a meeting of the National Cabinet this week, plans to widen the changes to bring transport and other key sectors under its ambit.
Even though Australia was dealing with a high number of cases, health systems were coping well, Morrison added. More than 3,500 people are in the hospital, up from about 2,000 a week ago.
Data from a Reuters tally showed Australia's infections crossed 1 million on Monday, with more than half in the last week alone.
Supply issues could persist for another three weeks, said supermarket chain Woolworths, where one in five employees is in quarantine.
"At this stage, there is enough product in our supply chain to meet the needs of customers," Chief Executive Brad Banducci told ABC Radio, as Reuters reported. "It might not always be their favorite brand, unfortunately."
Australia's strict border rules are again in the public eye after it canceled the entry visa for the world's top tennis player Novak Djokovic because of questions about his vaccine exemption. The judge hearing Djokovic's legal challenge to the decision to revoke his visa aired concerns about the Serbian's treatment by border officials upon his arrival.
Health officials warned Monday's figure of just over 67,000 infections could be an "underestimate," as reports from some states do not include those who tested positive in at-home rapid antigen tests. Sunday's tally was just under 100,000.
Total COVID-19 infections in Australia have touched 1.04 million since its first case nearly two years ago. The death toll stands at 2,387, though the omicron wave has caused fewer deaths than previous outbreaks, with 92% of those over 16 years of age having received two vaccine doses.
As its booster program gathers pace, Australia began rolling out from Monday inoculations with Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccines for children aged 5 to 11.
Australia's New South Wales state reported 16 deaths on Sunday in its deadliest day of the pandemic, even as it relaxed rules to allow some essential workers in isolation to return to work if they are asymptomatic. Just over 30,000 new cases were reported in Australia's most populous state, forcing people to join more than 200,000 others in isolation.
No statistics are maintained to determine how many of those are essential workers in the food and manufacturing sectors. But some employers say up to half of their workers have been furloughed after coming in contact with a positive case.
There were 1,927 people in hospitals, including 151 people in intensive care, according to The Associated Press (AP).
Victoria state reported 44,155 new cases on Sunday, including 22,051 from rapid antigen tests and 22,104 from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. Of those cases, 9,000 were from rapid antigen tests conducted on Saturday, while more than 13,000 were done on previous days and reported Sunday.