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Banks, Woolworths drag Australia shares lower

* Energy stocks top percentage losers

* Woolworths posts sharpest fall ever

* NSW sees double-digit rise in COVID-19 cases (Updates to close)

June 24 (Reuters) - Australian shares closed lower on Thursday, dragged down by banks and Woolworths Group, as the country’s most populous state grappled with a double-digit rise in COVID-19 cases.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said this is probably the “scariest period” for her state as officials fight to contain an outbreak of the more contagious Delta variant.

“The cluster growing in Sydney has become a bigger focus as there are concerns of a possible lockdown in parts of Sydney or New South Wales,” said James Tao, a market analyst at CommSec.

The ASX 200 index slipped 0.3% to 7,275.3, heading for its first weekly drop in five.

The ‘Big Four’ banks fell about 1% each, in line with broader financial stocks.

Westpac Banking Corp said it would retain its New Zealand business, after a review found that a demerger would not be in the best interests of its shareholders.

Woolworths Group tumbled 11.2% in its biggest fall ever, after Endeavour Group made its market debut after being spun-off by the supermarket chain.

Energy stocks fell 1.2% despite higher oil prices, as investors looked ahead to an OPEC+ meeting next week, which will decide on a possible output hike.

Afterpay was among the top gainers after saying it would let users in the United States shop at major merchants that it had not signed up directly, a move that analysts say will boost sales and margins.

Miners gained 0.6%, with Rio Tinto, BHP Group and Fortescue Metals Group rising about 1% each.

Across the Tasman sea, New Zealand’s benchmark NZX 50 index closed flat at 12,586.89.

Travel services provider Tourism Holdings Ltd was the top percentage gainer, up 5.2%. (Reporting by Yamini C S in Bengaluru; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu)

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