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Victoria’s lockdown is expected to continue beyond its original Thursday deadline amid fears that the state’s “fastest-moving” outbreak has yet to be contained.

Senior government ministers met on Tuesday night to receive a high-level briefing from health authorities about extending the stay-at-home orders in an attempt to combat an outbreak in which one in 10 positive cases have caught the virus from a stranger.

Melbourne in the middle of its fourth lockdown on June 1.Credit:Eddie Jim

A source close to the government, speaking on the condition of anonymity because a final decision had not yet been made, said Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton’s team was leaning strongly toward recommending a lockdown extension.

Professor Sutton said the Indian variant of the virus was “an absolute beast” because “it has moved faster than any other strain we’ve dealt with”.

“We’re seeing transmission in settings and circumstances we’ve never seen before,” he said.

Three new cases were recorded on Tuesday, the number of exposure sites grew to 342, and Health Minister Martin Foley took to referring to the cluster of cases as the “South Australian hotel outbreak” – a reference to the first case picking up the virus in an Adelaide quarantine hotel.

COVID-19 commander Jeroen Weimar.Credit:Joe Armao

“They’re brushing past each other in a small shop, they’re going around a display home … they’re looking at phones in a Telstra shop.”

Ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting, one state cabinet minister said further evidence of the virus transmitting through short interactions between strangers would “inevitably” see the lockdown extended, as would another mystery case.

“We can’t underestimate this challenge,” Professor Sutton said. “We are trying to do something nobody has had to do before – drive down the most challenging variant we’ve ever seen.“

MPs and mayors in regional Victoria have said their localities should be spared from any extension of the lockdown given there were no cases in those areas and no new exposure sites.

On Tuesday public health authorities, who expressed a degree of confidence that the virus was not out of control, said they were worried by mounting evidence that the virus was spreading in places such as shopping centres and supermarkets. Authorities believe, in part, this type of spread is being caused by the greater infectiousness of the Indian “Delta” variant.

In one of Tuesday’s cases, a man who shopped at a Port Melbourne strip near a workplace at the centre of the outbreak picked up the virus without knowingly interacting with anyone from the company.

This type of transmission – which in effect means anyone who travelled through an exposure site has the chance to become infected – occurred at the Telstra store in South Melbourne, a Mickleham display home, a grocery in Epping and a Craigieburn shopping centre.

To “drain the swamp” and ensure fleeting transmission did not occur at other large exposure sites, Mr Weimar urged anyone who attended the following places in the past one to two weeks to be tested immediately: Bay Street and Clarendon Street in Port Melbourne, Craigieburn Central, Epping Plaza, Epping North Shopping Centre, and Broadway shopping strip in Reservoir.

An extension of the lockdown will increase pressure on the Morrison government which has faced days of criticism for refusing to provide economic support to Victorians and for its slow vaccine rollout.

One senior federal cabinet minister told The Age the decision not to provide financial support was based on the Victorian government’s initial estimate that the “circuit breaker” lockdown would only last for a week. They said an extension of the lockdown would probably prompt the federal government to reconsider its initial decision not to offer financial support, especially if it continued beyond next week.

On Tuesday Treasurer Josh Frydenberg defended the government’s decision telling Coalition MPs the state government had attempted a “desperate smear” over the matter.

“Victoria came to us and asked for assistance. Because it was a short lockdown it was at a scale that could be managed at a local level,” the Treasurer told Liberal and Nationals MPs, according to a Coalition spokesperson.

“They ran a pretty desperate attempt to smear us when in reality the numbers tell a very different story. Victoria’s received more on a per capita basis than any other state.”

The Treasurer’s remarks are one of the federal government’s few criticisms of the state leaders after acting Premier James Merlino accused Canberra of a “disgraceful” refusal to offer financial help.

The Victorian government will extend business support in the event of an extended lockdown, and will again push Canberra for assistance.

“They’ve abrogated their responsibilities on everything else in this pandemic, but they’ve got an obligation to come to the table here,” a source close to the Andrews government said.

The state government announced on Tuesday that all aged care and disability workers will be able to jump the queue to access a COVID-19 jab at all Victorian vaccination centres. That decision was previously endorsed by the national cabinet in late April, and the Andrews government wrote to private aged care homes shortly after offering worker vaccinations but received a muted response from homes.

None of the new community cases announced on Tuesday were connected with aged care settings, where four cases emerged in recent days, forcing several homes to close as aged care staff worked across multiple sites. All staff and residents at a Sunshine home where a COVID-positive employee worked tested negative.

About 43,000 vaccine doses were administered on Monday – the third time more than 40,000 people have received a shot in a single day. An increasing number of Victoria’s mass vaccination centres are offering Pfizer shots for people aged in their 40s who walk in off the street.

Victorian authorities are still seeking the missing link between the Wollert man, who picked up the virus in Adelaide hotel quarantine on May 4 and flew to Melbourne that day, and “case five”, who became symptomatic almost two weeks later before unwittingly infecting other people.

For the first time, Mr Weimar detailed authorities’ working theory that the Wollert man passed the virus on to another person via fleeting contact at one of a handful of exposure sites from May 6 to May 9.

They include his train rides to and from the MCG on the night of May 7 to watch Richmond play Geelong, his dinner at the Curry Vault restaurant in the CBD on May 8 or his attendance at a 7/11 and grocery stores in the northern suburbs.

The government put the call out to footy attendees as well as scouring myki data and information at the restaurant such as bank statements. They identified “40-odd” attendees at the Curry Vault but, Mr Weimar said “there may well have been a 41st person we didn’t find” particularly in the absence of widespread QR code check-ins that night.

With David Crowe

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