Sydney, Australia
Reuters

Australia's second-most populous state Victoria said on Tuesday that anyone breaking COVID-19 isolation orders will face hefty fines, as high as $A20,000, and that more military personnel will be deployed to fight the spread of the virus.

Australia, once heralded as a global leader in containing COVID-19, is desperately trying to slow the spread of the virus in Victoria to prevent a national second wave of infections. 

Coronavirus Victoria police

Victoria Police officers meet outside a public housing tower, locked down in response to an outbreak of thoe coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Melbourne, Australia, on 8th July. PICTURE: Reuters/Sandra Sanders/File photo.

Victoria earlier this week imposed a night curfew, tightened restrictions on people's daily movements and ordered large parts of the local economy to close to slow the spread of coronavirus.

But nearly a third of those who contracted COVID-19 were not home isolating when checked on by officials, requiring tough new penalties, Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said on Tuesday.

INDIGENOUS GROUP BLOCKS ULURU ACCESS ROUTE OVER PANDEMIC FEARS

Australia has closed the national park home to its revered indigenous site of Uluru after some in the community blocked an access route for fear that visitors could carry in coronavirus infections. 

The country is battling a new wave of the deadly virus, with southeastern Victoria state reeling from hundreds of infections, while Indigenous Australians are seen at greater risk as they suffer a higher incidence of other health woes.

"It's up to tourists to stay away if they come from hotspots or are sick," Thalia Bohl-Van Den Boogaard, the representative of a group of Indigenous Australians protesting against the visits, told Reuters by telephone.

A few protesters from the indigenous community stood on the main entrance road to the park on Tuesday, down from the previous day's numbers of between 30 and 40 that had turned away tourists before the attraction closed, she said. 

The group was concerned by the arrival in a nearby town of 39 people from the northeastern city of Brisbane, a declared virus hotspot, said Bohl-Van Den Boogaard, the chief executive of the Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation. 

"People here have been locked in their communities for months and months to contain the spread, and now it's not up to them to do the right thing," she added, urging visitors to keep away. 

About 350 tourists have visited the park following July's re-opening of the state's borders since closure in March during the first wave of the pandemic, Bohl-Van Den Boogaard said.

Parks Australia, the state-run manager of heritage estates and nature sites, said it was working as part of a "collective response" to minimise the risk of contagion. 

"At the request of the Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park will be closed," a spokesman told the Australian Broadcasting Corp on Monday. 

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed 348 metre high monolith, formerly known as Ayers Rock, where climbing was banned last year, is closed to sightseers. 

An agency spokeswoman said the park would stay closed during discussions with the group and Northern Territory officials to ramp up health screening and testing at the local airport and Yulara, the town the Brisbane group visited.

- PAULINA DURAN, Reuters

Fines of nearly $A5,000 will be issued to anyone breaching stay at home orders. Repeat offenders face a fine of up to $A20,000.

"There is literally no reason for you to leave your home and if you were to leave your home and not be found there, you will have a very difficult time convincing Victoria police that you have a lawful reason," Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.

The only exemption will be for urgent medical care, said Andrews, adding anyone under a self-isolation order will no longer be allowed to leave their homes for outdoor exercise.

"Fresh air at the front door. Fresh air in your front yard or backyard or opening a window," he said.

Andrews said an additional 500 unarmed military personnel will this week deploy to Victoria to assist police in ensuring self-isolation orders are being complied with.

The latest military deployment will join about 1,500 troops already in Victoria and engaged in contact tracing, testing and assisting police at check points. Australia has deployed almost 3,000 troops to help in virus logistical operations.

Australia has recorded nearly 19,000 COVID-19 cases and 232 fatalities, far few than many other developed nations after closing its international borders early, imposing social distancing restrictions and mass virus testing.

But as the country began to reopen, community transmissions rose significantly in Victoria which has recorded triple digit new cases for weeks. It now has the bulk of infections in the country, with nearly 12,000 reported cases. On Tuesday, Victoria reported 439 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours. 

Andrews said 11 people had died from the virus since Monday, bringing the state's death toll to 136. The virus has spread significantly throughout Victoria's aged care facilities, with many of the deaths among the elderly.

Victoria state officials said the latest wave of COVID-19 infections has been driven by residents refusing to adhere to restrictions on their movements.

"There are a number of people who have knowingly breached the curfew - so somebody who decided they were bored and they were going to go out for a drive, somebody who decided that they needed to buy a car after 8pm last night," Victoria Minister for Police Lisa Neville told reporters in Melbourne. 

With concerns that many people feel they have no choice but to continue working after a COVID-19 diagnosis, Australia said on Monday it would pay people in the state $A1,500 to stay home if they were ordered to and they do not have leave entitlements.

Many internal state borders have been closed which has so far seen the new wave of infections predominately limited to Victoria, with neighbouring New South Wales state reporting the next highest number of cases.

NSW on Tuesday reported 12 new cases, though all the cases can be traced back to known outbreaks, some of which were started by infected people travelling from Victoria.