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Australia shares open lower as domestic virus concerns weigh

* Australia to bring forward COVID vaccine roll-out

* Healthcare stocks drop over 1%

* Energy stocks benefit from rally in oil prices

Jan 6 (Reuters) - Australian shares slipped on Wednesday as concerns over the extent of a Sydney coronavirus cluster saw authorities ban residents from several suburbs, stoking fears of tougher lockdown restrictions and tepid economic growth.

New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, called on residents in three cities to be tested for COVID-19 and isolate, while the country’s largest city Sydney continued to battle a number of virus clusters.

The S&P/ASX 200 index was down 0.45% at 6,681.9 by 1130 GMT. The benchmark closed roughly flat on Tuesday.

The health ministry said it would bring forward its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans by two weeks to early March, as fears of a wider outbreak mounted. Australia has repeatedly resisted pressure to expedite its vaccination distribution timetable, citing low coronavirus cases in the country.

Healthcare stocks dropped 1.6%, with biotech giant CSL Ltd losing 1.4%.

Heavyweight financials also traded lower, with the so-called ‘Big Four’ banks falling in the range of 0.5% to 0.8%.

Tech stocks also took a beating, with Telstra Corp and TPG Telecom falling 0.3% and 0.6%, respectively.

Bucking the sombre mood, energy stocks soared as oil prices benefited from the news of proposed output cuts by major producer Saudi Arabia.

Oil and gas explorers Oil Search and Santos Ltd were among the top gainers in the index, climbing 4.8% and 4.1%, respectively.

Insurance Australia Group edged up after it announced a finalised catastrophe reinsurance programme for 2021.

The number of issues on the ASX that advanced were 690 while 500 declined.

In neighbouring New Zealand, the benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 0.4%, helped by gains among utility and tech stocks.

Reporting by Soumyajit Saha in Bengaluru, Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips

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