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Could this be the big one? 'Very worried' Premier fears perfect virus storm

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The virulent UK strain of the coronavirus quietly spread from a previous cluster, to young people who have visited popular venues as far afield as Byron Bay and Gladstone. No wonder authorities are concerned.

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The mini cluster at the Hotel Grand Chancellor and Princess Alexandra Hospital was thought to have been dealt with weeks ago, when Greater Brisbane was last in lockdown. Instead, the highly contagious UK variant has kept spreading through the community, and is now linked to a new cluster of seven cases in Greater Brisbane.

Acting on advice from Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has ordered Greater Brisbane into lockdown from 5pm today and the rest of the state onto new restrictions. Greater Brisbane will be declared a hotspot, adding to the travel disruption ahead of Easter and school holidays.

Palaszczuk confessed she had a sleepless night as the new cases were confirmed and the gravity of the situation became clear.

“I am very worried, I am very concerned,” Palaszczuk told journalists.

Young had previously expressed confidence that Queensland’s contact tracing prowess, combined with the vaccination rollout, could avoid the need for any further lockdowns. Today, she has effectively bought the contact tracers more time as they go through scores of potential infection sites and engage with interstate colleagues.

“We now have significant community transmission and significant numbers of venues that are of concern,” Young said.

The seven community-acquired cases include three workmates linked to two flatmates (one was infected by his brother), and, separately, two sisters, one of whom is a nurse at the PA Hospital. She had worked in the COVID-19 ward but was on holidays when her colleagues were being vaccinated, and it is still not clear how, where or when she was infected.

Without knowing they were infectious, the nurse and her sister went to Byron Bay, where they went to the popular Byron Beach Hotel from 7.15pm to 8.30pm on Friday night, and The Farm Byron Bay on Sunday morning. The nurse is not believed to have been infectious at work.

One of the workmates spent three days at the end of last week in Gladstone, Gin Gin and Miriam Vale. They are thought to have been infected through a Strathpine man catching it from a friend who lives in Stafford, and is believed to have been previously infected by his brother who is somehow linked to the PA Hospital. Before today, there were 25 venues subject to public health alerts, including shopping centres, pubs and restaurants, from Carindale to Redcliffe, but that will rise.

It is possible there are other missing links, including potentially health staff, between the two clusters. Combined, the clusters account for 11 cases (including the brother of the Stafford man who is considered a historic case) all originating from a traveller in quarantine at the Hotel Grand Chancellor, where the UK variant had previously leaked out.

Queensland hospitals were already under so much pressure from travellers arriving from Papua New Guinea with COVID-19 the state will now halve its international travel intake. Another six cases were confirmed in hotel quarantine overnight, with 73 active cases overall – numbers not seen since early in the pandemic.

Palaszczuk urged Queenslanders to comply with the lockdown and restrictions, listen to the health advice and get tested if they are sick or have been to any of the venues subject to public health alerts.

The warnings came after Queensland Health faced criticism for saying the Strathpine man had a party after being told to isolate, when the party was actually two weeks earlier. Opposition leader David Crisafulli warned the blunder could undermine public confidence in the health response.

The Premier was unable to rule out the lockdown being extended, saying only that the situation was evolving and the government would provide daily updates.

“I apologise for the inconvenience it’s going to cause people but health has to come first here,” Palaszczuk said.

From 5pm, residents of Greater Brisbane – Brisbane, Logan, Redlands, Ipswich and Moreton Bay council areas – will be confined to their homes unless they are going out for essential work, medical attention, to buy food, support a vulnerable person or exercise (subject to specific rules). That will also apply to anyone who lives somewhere else but has been in Greater Brisbane since March 25.

Young said Greater Brisbane residents and recent travellers to Brisbane would also have to wear masks unless they are by themselves in a room or in their own home, and can only have up to two visitors to a home.

“For the rest of the state, outside the five local government areas that make up greater Brisbane, I’m asking that you wear a mask when you can’t physically distance, when you’re inside or when you’re on public transport,” Young said.

The Gladstone link has also prompted a limit of 30 people for household gatherings outside of Greater Brisbane, and a requirement that any dining out or drinking in venues be seated.

Young said visitors would be banned in hospitals, aged care, disability services, and prisons across the state to protect the most vulnerable.

Genome sequencing results are due later tonight to help determine how the two women were infected and confirm the likely link to the other cases.

The previous biggest Queensland cluster was centred on the Brisbane youth detention centre last year and involved 55 cases.

A list of venues subject to a public health alert can be found here: https://www.qld.gov.au/health/conditions/health-alerts/coronavirus-covid-19/current-status/contact-tracing

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