Melbourne toasts end of long Covid-19 lockdown

People celebrate in a bar in Melbourne on Oct 22, 2021.
People celebrate in a bar in Melbourne on Oct 22, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (AFP) - Melbourne reopened on Friday (Oct 22) after enduring one of the world's most prolonged series of lockdowns, with relieved residents of Australia's second-biggest city heading to bars, restaurants and for desperately needed hair cuts.

The city's five million people have spent more than 260 days under lockdown since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But now that 70 per cent of eligible people in Melbourne and surrounding Victoria state are fully vaccinated, restrictions that began on Aug 5 have been lifted.

"I am feeling a little bit bleary-eyed but full of joy today," Melbourne's Lord Mayor Sally Capp said after a late night joining the celebrations.

"Like many people, I did not want to waste a moment last night. It was fantastic to hear horns honking and people yelling. I was giving it a fair go as well. Just so excited," she told Australian broadcaster ABC.

"People have felt like they have been holding their breath for weeks now and we can all have a big sense of relief."

A total of six lockdowns have taken their toll on the once-buzzing city, which has long prided itself on its vibrant arts scene and cafe culture.

In 2021, it lost the mantle of Australia's most liveable city amid violent anti-lockdown protests and residents leaving to Covid-19-free regional towns.

Bars, restaurants and hair salons hailed the return of their customers.

Hairdresser Ryan LcLerie said he had been separated from his work for too long. "It's super nuts to be back today and it is a sunny day so it's perfect," he told Agence France-Presse.

"People are just going nuts, trying to book and calling, 'please can you squeeze me in?'," said Ms Marcela Rodriguez, co-founder of cafe-bar Vamos Fitzroy in Melbourne's Latin quarter.

"Now we need to be very, very careful with numbers and complying with all the rules so I think that is the challenge," she told Melbourne newspaper The Age.

Despite increased freedoms for fully vaccinated Melbourne residents, they still cannot leave the city and retail shops must remain closed until the double-dose rate lifts to 80 per cent - likely within weeks.

Limits on patrons at cafes, bars and restaurants will remain in place, squeezing business owners who are also grappling with staff shortages caused by international border closures.

ABC News reported on Thursday that Victoria will also lift quarantine requirements for international travellers at the end of the month. Sydney and surrounding New South Wales state are also set to scrap the requirements on Nov 1.

Barbers give haircuts in Melbourne on Oct 22, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

People enjoy a meal at a cafe in Melbourne on Oct 22, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

While varying rules make it difficult to directly compare lockdowns - Toronto eateries were reportedly closed to diners for more than 360 days while Buenos Aires was under harsh restrictions for much of last year - Melbourne has spent among the most days under stay-at-home orders.

Praising the reopening as well as Australia's soaring vaccination rates, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared "victory is in sight" in what he described as the "battle of our generation".

"You're about to start reclaiming your lives," he wrote in Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper. "It's a new chapter, as you begin to open up safely. And stay safely open."

People are seen near Albert Park Lake in Melbourne on Oct 22, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Australia so far has been spared the worst of the pandemic, recording about 150,000 cases and 1,500 deaths in a population of 25 million.

The authorities in Victoria have warned that hospitals will likely come under "intense pressure" as a result of the decision to reopen even as Covid-19 surges there, with 2,232 new cases recorded on Thursday.

But after pursuing "Covid zero" for much of the pandemic, Melbourne has followed Sydney's lead in abandoning the strategy after failing to contain the highly infectious Delta variant.