SYDNEY, May 11 - Victoria has announced it will relax bans on social visits, religious gatherings and community sports, joining other states which have begun to ease measures intended to slow the spread of coronavirus.
From Tuesday, the 6.3 million residents of Victoria will be allowed to visit friends and family in groups of up to five, while groups of 10 could participate in a host of community events, Premier Daniel Andrews said.
Much of Australia has now made tentative steps to unwind a national shutdown which began almost two months ago to contain the flu-like illness. The measures, which included border closures, have been credited with slowing the spread of the illness across the country to a crawl, from a daily rise of 25% per day at its peak in March.
“That doesn’t mean it is an open invitation to be having a dinner party at every house every night,” said Andrews said at a press conference in Melbourne.
“We have to use our common sense. We have to be proportionate (and) recognise that this is far from over.”
Andrews, who has been accused by political opponents of acting too slow to reopen the state’s economy, added he may bring forward a previous recommendation to keep school students at home until mid-year, without giving further details.
Dozens of people protested against the lockdown measures outside Victoria’s state parliament in Melbourne on Sunday, leading police to arrest 10 people for breaching coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings.
Protesters held signs reading “There’s nothing smart about 5G”, “Fight for your freedom and rights” and “Covid Hoax”.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that people would be protesting or seeking to suggest we don’t have a pandemic,” Victoria Health Minister Jenny Mikakos told reporters.
When asked at a press conference about the protests, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, “Well, I understand people’s frustration and I’m pleased to see that the Victorian Premier has made some decisions today or prior to today in terms of where they are going on the roadmap back.
He added “it’s a free country” and that “people will make their protest and make their voices heard”.
“But equally, that needs to be done in an appropriate way and it needs to respect the law enforcement authorities who are just simply trying to do their job. So we understand it’s a difficult time and those issues will be dealt with in the normal way.”
Meanwhile New South Wales has also allowed limited social visits, as have several of the smaller states, meaning the toughest stay-at-home order imposed by the federal government no longer applies to most of Australia’s 25 million population.
Children in NSW and Queensland began returning to school on Monday on a limited basis after an extended break due to COVID-19.
The NSW government said it has delivered thousands of litres of soap and hand sanitiser to schools, as well as personal protective equipment and temperature monitors. Class sizes will be reduced and activities will involve minimal physical contact between the students, many of whom have not attended school since mid-March.
Year 12 students, whose exams were interrupted by the virus response, would attend at least three days per week in class, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said, with the plan to return to full-time class attendance for all students by the end of May.
NSW and Victoria account for most of Australia’s 6,941 confirmed coronavirus cases and 97 deaths, and both reported single-digit increases in new cases in the 24 hours to Monday.
State and federal officials will meet on Monday to discuss ways of dealing with the risks of crowds on public transport as businesses start to reopen, the country’s chief medical officer said on the weekend.
The PM said it was too early to say if he would reduce a previous timeframe of guaranteeing a host emergency relief payments for relief six months.
“We are six weeks into a six month program,” Morrison told reporters. “The reason we’re reopening is we’ve put protections in place, and it’ll take us some time to reopen our economy and get it back to a point where it can start supporting Australians again.”
Reporting by Byron Kaye, Renju Jose and Swati Pandey