The prime minister, Scott Morrison, and state leaders say Queensland has acted in the interests of all Australians by ordering a snap lockdown in greater Brisbane to contain the spread of the UK variant of coronavirus, despite only one case having been recorded.
Other states are raising their drawbridges after the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, ordered people in five sprawling council areas to stay at home from 6pm on Friday until 6pm on Monday.
“We are going to go hard and we are going to go early to do everything we can to stop the spread of this virus,” she said on Friday, a day after tests revealed that a Brisbane quarantine hotel cleaner had been out in the community while infectious.
Morrison praised Queensland’s rapid but proportionate response to contain the variant, which the state’s chief health officer says could be 70% more infectious than previous versions of the virus. It has pushed some UK hospitals to capacity.
“I know there will be some in Brisbane today asking ‘Why is this necessary? There is only one case.’ Well, this isn’t any ordinary case,” the prime minister told reporters.
“This is a very special case and one that requires us to treat things quite differently until we know more and we will learn much in the next few days. What Queenslanders will be doing over the next few days, they will be doing not just for themselves and their own communities, but for the rest of the country.”
News of the lockdown – which applies to residents of, and visitors to, the Brisbane, Logan, Ipswich, Moreton Bay and Redlands council areas – sparked immediate action in other jurisdictions.
Tasmania moved first, effectively banning travellers from greater Brisbane. The Northern Territory soon followed, saying that from Friday, those arriving at the airport had the choice of immediately leaving again or entering two weeks of mandatory quarantine.
South Australia will accept arrivals from the lockdown zone until midnight but those travellers will have to consent to Covid-19 tests on day one, five and 12 of their stay. Anyone who arrives after midnight will be forced into quarantine.
The Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, announced a hard border closure from midnight, saying the high number of contacts the infected cleaner had demanded fast action.
But the acting New South Wales premier, John Barilaro, opted not to close the state’s border with Queensland while warning that anyone who’d been in greater Brisbane for any time from 2 January onwards, and was now in NSW, must abide by the lockdown rules by staying at home until Monday.
“At no point during this pandemic have we ever had a knee-jerk reaction or treated the border like a light switch,” Barilaro told reporters. “What we do is work with our counterparts, offer support, because whatever happens in Queensland impacts NSW and any other state.”
People entering NSW from Queensland will be asked to account for their movements, with road travellers urged to keep track of their stops in case the information is needed for contact tracing later.
Victoria said its residents in greater Brisbane “should not leave those areas until at least Monday”. People who have arrived in Victoria from locked-down councils since 2 January “should get tested [and] remain at home or place of accommodation until Monday”.
ACT residents in greater Brisbane have been told to stay where they are until the lockdown lifts and not to return unless it’s essential. Anyone who does return must complete an online declaration stating where they’ve been, self-isolate for two weeks and get tested if they develop symptoms.
Residents who’ve already returned to the ACT after being in greater Brisbane on or after 2 January must also self-isolate.
In greater Brisbane, as of 6pm on Friday, anyone from the affected council areas who does leave home must wear a mask. Children under the age of 12 are exempt. Residents can only leave their households for essential work, to care for a vulnerable person, and for essential shopping and exercise within local neighbourhoods.
The lockdown also applies to anyone who has been in the greater Brisbane area since 2 January but has since moved elsewhere in the state. People who have gone on holiday in the intervening period have been told to stay where they are.
Palaszczuk also revealed Queensland had recorded nine more coronavirus cases, all in hotel quarantine, from more than 13,000 tests carried out on Thursday. “We need to do this,” the premier said. “If we do not do this now, it could end up being a 30-day lockdown.”
Palaszczuk said authorities had identified 79 close contacts of the hotel cleaner with the UK variant, with all now in quarantine awaiting tests.
The state’s chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, said the lockdown would buy contact tracers time to find everyone who had come into contact with the cleaner, who worked a casual shift at the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Brisbane on 2 January.
She tested positive for the UK variant on Thursday but before that had used public transport and visited shopping centres while infectious.
Young said it was crucial that every one of those contacts was found and contained until testing proved they posed no risk. “We can’t put it back in the box,” she said.
Viral fragments of coronavirus had been detected at wastewater treatment plants at Gibson Island servicing south Brisbane, Cleveland Bay servicing Townsville, Pulgul servicing Hervey Bay and Maryborough, Young said on Friday afternoon.
“This does not mean we have new cases of Covid-19 in these communities, but we are treating these detections with absolute caution,” she said. “Infected people can shed viral fragments and that shedding can happen for several weeks after the person is no longer infectious.”
The health officer appealed for people not to panic-buy – but there were chaotic scenes at some Brisbane supermarkets within an hour of the lockdown announcement.
At Wynnum, on Brisbane’s bayside, one resident, Charlie Stevens, said it was “bedlam” at his local Woolworths store and there was no social distancing.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. There won’t be anything on the shelves in a couple of hours,” he told Guardian Australia. “The lines go right around the aisles, around the perimeter of the supermarket. I needed a couple of basics but people are going crazy, it’s only three days for God’s sake.”
During the lockdown, Young said, funerals would be limited to 20 people, and weddings to 10.
“We are asking people not to go to any non-essential businesses, such as hairdressers, nail salons etc, cinemas, gyms … sporting activities over the weekend.
“All of that is just on hold. We just need to take a pause for the next three days and just see what this single case means.”
Restrictions have already been imposed on access to aged care homes, hospitals, disability services and corrections facilities.
The Queensland health minister, Yvette D’Ath, said the risk could not be overstated.
“Any delay could see significant, if not catastrophic results. This is not hypothetical. We’re seeing this playing out in the United Kingdom right now.”