Australia rules out lockdowns despite Omicron surge

SYDNEY, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Australia must move past "the heavy hand of government" and authorities must stop shutting down people's lives with COVID-19 lockdowns, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday, as daily infections in the country shot up to a new pandemic high.

COVID-19 cases have been breaking records over the last several days, the surge fuelled by the more transmissible Omicron variant, but Morrison insisted that limiting the spread of the virus comes down to personal responsibility.

"We have got to get past the heavy hand of government and we have got to treat Australians like adults," Morrison told reporters, urging authorities to shift from "a culture of mandates" when it comes to masks and social distancing rules.

"We're not going back to lockdowns. We're going forward to live with this virus with common sense and responsibility."

People walk through a street market in the city centre, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination rates continue to rise, in Sydney, Australia, November 19, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Swift lockdowns and strict social distancing rules have helped Australia to keep its COVID-19 numbers relatively low at around 260,000 total cases and 2,154 deaths. But most of the country has been reopening over the last few weeks after higher inoculations despite the threat from the Omicron variant.

Authorities are now aiming to ramp up the rollout of booster shots with Morrison urging states to reopen hundreds of immunisation hubs shut down after demand slowed when double-dose rates in people above 16 years topped 80%.

Despite the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said "only a fraction" of those cases were ending up in hospitals. The number of people in hospitals has been creeping up, but remains far lower than during the Delta wave.

Around 4,600 cases were reported in Australia on Tuesday, exceeding the previous high of some 4,100 over the weekend. New South Wales, home to Sydney, became the first Australian state to top 3,000 COVID-19 daily infections, while neighbouring Victoria logged 1,245 cases. Other states have fewer cases.

Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa

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