SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - The leader of Australia's second-most populous state has announced the end of a nightly curfew in Melbourne sooner than originally expected as the pace of new coronavirus infections in the city slows.
That's not enough for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is urgently seeking to reboot the stalled national economy and is pleading for Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews to quickly remove more lockdown curbs implemented almost two months ago.
"As it stands this lockdown is already longer than that faced by residents in many cities around the world," Mr Morrison said in a statement late Sunday (Sept 27).
"We remain deeply concerned about the mental health impacts of a prolonged lock down on Melbourne residents."
Mr Andrews has angered pro-business groups with his plan to keep most retailers and restaurants shuttered until the state reduces its 14-day rolling average to 5 new cases a day, down from the figure of 20.3 posted on Monday.
With the federal budget due to be announced on Oct 6 that's expected to see Australia sink deeper into deficit as it boosts spending to revive economic growth, Mr Morrison is ramping up the pressure on Mr Andrews to quickly dismantle Melbourne's lockdown, implemented in early August to counter a resurgence of the pandemic.
"It will be important that more be done in the weeks ahead to safely ease more restrictions," Mr Morrison said.
He urged Mr Andrews to review his lockdown timetable which is designed to incrementally remove restrictions as the 14-day rolling average falls, "as many epidemiologists have encouraged," he said.
Melbourne on Monday (Sept 28) registered five new cases and three deaths over the previous 24 hours, a stark contrast to the many hundreds of daily infections that forced the city into lockdown.
Fines will be hiked for people who continue to break the social restrictions that remain in place, Mr Andrews said on Sunday as he announced some relaxations to restrictions.
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$4,847) 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.
The previous day, he announced the appointment of Martin Foley as health minister after the sudden resignation of Jenny Mikakos amid a furore over the bungling of quarantine procedures at hotels that triggered the pandemic's resurgence.
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.
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.
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 would be spent in regional Australia for projects that largely support tourism businesses hurt by the pandemic and infrastructure that serves the sector.
On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the support programme currently in place for domestic aviation and regional airlines would be extended into 2021.