SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - A nightly curfew will be lifted in Melbourne as the pace of new coronavirus infections slows in Australia’s second-largest city.
While some curbs are being eased earlier than expected, fines will be hiked for people who continue to break the social restrictions that remain in place, Mr Daniel Andrews, premier of the southern state of Victoria, said.
The changes in Melbourne came as New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, reported no new cases over the past 24 hours, its best day since June 10.
The improvements have breathed life into hopes that Australia may be able to create a "travel bubble" with neighbour New Zealand before the end of the year.
The two countries imposed strict measures to reduce the spread of the virus and have had relatively more success in containing it than much of the rest of the world.
Still, their economies have both fallen into recession, with the services and travel sectors severely hurt in both nations.
Melbourne registered 16 new cases and two deaths over the past 24 hours, a stark contrast to the many hundreds of daily infections that forced the city into lockdown.
The 14-day rolling average has now dropped to 22, below the 30-50 range initially envisaged for the next stage in relaxing rules.
The changes include: an end to the 9pm-5am curfew on Monday; allowing public gatherings of up to five people, from two previously; fines of about A$5,000 (S$4,840) for breaking rules on groups; allowing an extra 127,000 people to return to work soon; reopening childcare; allowing more, but not all, children to return to school for Term 4 classes.
Mr Andrews told reporters in Melbourne on Sunday that the city may be able to take its next step in relaxing curbs on Oct 19, a week earlier than expected.
On Saturday he announced the appointment of Mr Martin Foley as health minister after the sudden resignation of Ms Jenny Mikakos amid a furore over the bungling of quarantine procedures at hotels.
Unlike other states, which relied on police or the armed forces to oversee hotel quarantine, Victoria hired private security firms.
Among a litany of problems, the contractors failed to use personal-protection equipment, families were able to mix in each other’s rooms, and some guards had sex with quarantined guests, the Herald Sun newspaper reported.
Speaking earlier in the day, Australia’s tourism minister Simon Birmingham said he hoped people would be able to travel freely to and from New Zealand by the end of the year.
"Ultimately whether New Zealand opens up to Australia will be a matter for New Zealand," Mr Birmingham said in an interview on television broadcaster Nine Network.
New Zealand reported two new virus cases on Sunday.
Separately, Mr Birmingham and federal government colleagues said A$250 million (S$242 million) would be spent in regional Australia for projects that largely support tourism businesses hurt by the pandemic and infrastructure that serves the sector.
The announcement comes ahead of Oct 6 release of the federal budget, which is expected to see Australia sink deeper into deficit as it boosts spending to pull the economy out of recession.