International arrival cap halved in Western Australia after coronavirus outbreak

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Western Australia's international arrivals cap for the next month will be halved, officials said on Sunday, as the state is battling a coronavirus outbreak that forced more than two million people into a three-day lockdown from Saturday.

The lockdown was ordered after a traveller likely became infected while in quarantine in a hotel and unknowingly passed it on to two other people in the community.

Australia closed its borders more than a year ago and allows mostly only its citizens and permanent residents to return. All, except from New Zealand, must undergo two weeks of mandatory hotel quarantine at their own expense.

The hotel quarantine system, together with snap lockdowns and swift tracking limiting coronavirus has helped Australia to keep its COVID-19 numbers low compared with other developed countries, with just over 29,500 cases and 910 deaths.

Western Australia's Premier Mark McGowan said on Sunday that the federal government had agreed to halve the current rate of 1,025 returning travellers per week to Perth for at least a month.

"The high number of returned overseas travellers is putting continued strain and pressure on our hotel quarantine system," McGowan said at a televised briefing.

On Saturday, he urged the federal government to find new quarantine facilities away from crowded downtown hotels.

With the row escalating between Western Australia and Canberra, the federal government reiterated in a statement over the weekend that it has been working to expand the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory.

From May, the spread-out former worker's village in Howard Springs will expand to 2,000 people a fortnight and will be responsible for 15% of all Australians returning. While there have been several leaks from hotel quarantine in recent months in Western Australia and other states, there has been none in Howard Springs.

Western Australia reported no new locally acquired coronavirus cases on Sunday, but testing of hundreds of people was still underway and McGowan said it was too early to predict what the government would decide on Tuesday when the lockdown in Perth and nearby Peel region was due to end.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Christopher Cushing)

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