Australia shares dragged by banks, energy stocks amid NSW virus concerns

June 24 (Reuters) - Australian shares fell on Thursday, hurt by losses among financial and energy stocks, as sentiment was subdued after the country’s most populous state of New South Wales braced for a rise in COVID-19 cases.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell 0.3% to 7,279.70 points by 0040 GMT. The benchmark was down 0.6% on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, Japan’s Nikkei was up 0.01% and S&P e-mini futures gained 0.2%.

New South Wales should brace for more COVID-19 cases on Thursday, authorities said, as the state fights to contain a fresh outbreak of the highly contagious Delta virus variant in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, that has swelled to more than 30 cases in a week.

Authorities imposed mandatory masks in all indoor locations, including offices, and tightened curbs on movement and gatherings for a week from Wednesday.

Energy stocks slipped 0.8%, despite oil prices climbing to around two-year highs, weighed by the potential for further curbs. Fuel retailers Ampol and Viva Energy lost nearly 2% and 1%, respectively.

Financials were down 0.6%, hurt by losses in the so-called “Big Four” banks.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group and National Australian Bank declined between 0.7% and 1%.

Second-largest lender Westpac Banking Corp, which fell as much as 1.1%, said it would retain 100% ownership of its New Zealand business, after a review found that a demerger would not be in the best interests of its shareholders.

The company was widely expected to spin off the unit to avoid increasingly stringent regulatory requirements in New Zealand.

Health stocks slid as sector heavyweight CSL fell 1.8% and weighed on the index.

Bucking the trend, technology stocks added nearly 2%, tracking the Nasdaq’s record-high close overnight, with buy-now-pay-later giant Afterpay climbing 4.7%

New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index was flat at 12,577.23.

Reporting by Vasudha Kaukuntla in Bengaluru; Editing by Amy Caren Daniel