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COVID-19 restrictions similar to those that were in place at Christmas are set to return, with the government expected to relax rules that have lingered since the end of the five-day lockdown.
Nine senior Victorian ministers will meet on Friday morning to finalise a plan to relax mask restrictions and allow more people inside homes, provided there are no new locally-acquired cases. Thursday was the sixth day in a row with no new local cases.
Premier Daniel Andrews with (L-R) COVID-19 commander Jeroen Weimar, Health Minister Martin Foley and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.Credit:Chris Hopkins
The intention, according to two government sources familiar with the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details are subject to change, is to revert to a set of rules resembling the “COVID-safe summer” restrictions that were in place before an outbreak in late December that was traced to a Thai restaurant in Black Rock.
Before that cluster – which stemmed from NSW – 30 people could gather inside a home. This number was cut to 15 before New Year’s Eve and has been limited to five indoors and 20 people outdoors since last Wednesday as health officials have attempted to transition out of the snap lockdown without risking more infections.
The government may opt for a more cautious approach and allow 15 indoors again rather than 30.
Under pre-Black Rock rules, masks were only required to be worn at indoor shopping centres and supermarkets as well as on public transport and in ride-share vehicles. The business community is hoping the government will lift the office capacity limit from 50 per cent to 75 per cent.
Premier Daniel Andrews said on Thursday he was “very confident [Friday] would be a day of good news”.
“I will try to get the settings back as close to – not New Year’s Eve – but Christmas, a COVID-safe summer setting. I won’t commit to it today … but it will be tomorrow morning. Let’s hope tomorrow is the seventh day of zero cases … and the test number is still strong.”
Density rules for businesses, including hospitality venues, and ceremonies such as weddings and funerals have already reverted back to Christmas settings, meaning Friday’s changes will focus on household gatherings and masks.
Friday will mark the end of the 14-day incubation period for many close contacts of COVID-positive people infected during the Holiday Inn outbreak. Very few close contacts have become infected since the lockdown ended while active cases have dropped as infected people recovered. The state started the week with 25 active cases, but shed five on Tuesday and four on Wednesday. Victoria now has 16 active cases.
When the COVID-safe summer rules were announced in early December, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the rules represented the closest return to normal that could be done safely in the absence of widespread vaccine takeup.
A total of 808 vaccine doses were administered in Victoria on Wednesday, up from 675 on Tuesday and 580 on Monday. In total, 2063 vaccine doses have been received in Victoria this week.
Professor Sutton indicated after the five-day lockdown that health officials realised its tracing and isolation model was sufficient to deal with outbreaks involving more infectious strains of the virus, indicating the government may not mandate another lockdown if presented with a similar set of risks that sparked the recent stay-at-home order.
Queensland has achieved 49 days straight without a case of community transmission and the state is preparing to lift its border restrictions for Melbourne at the weekend. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the hotspot declaration for Greater Melbourne would be revoked at 1am on Saturday local time.
Paul Guerra, chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said relaxing indoor mask rules meant more workers would feel comfortable returning to offices and the city’s economy would regenerate. He said increasing office capacity to 75 per cent would be welcomed but said it would not be disastrous if the government waited longer to enact that change.
Industry groups from a number of sectors chastised the government for its five-day lockdown, with many saying the rapid and drastic move dampened business confidence and ignited fears of future lockdowns, which would further crimp investment and optimism.
Mr Guerra said the government needed to give “clear guidance” to organisers of major events on how many people could attend. He said upcoming racing meets were taking place with uncertainty around how many spectators could gather.
“Having that certainty will really pave the way for the events sector opening up,” he said.
Meanwhile, Victoria has tightened restrictions on travellers from Auckland after more cases emerged in the New Zealand city this week.
The Department of Health issued a statement late on Wednesday night saying all flights arriving from Auckland would be regarded as “red zone” arrivals from 11.59pm on Wednesday.
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