Some Sydney school students return as more Covid-19 curbs eased

Members of the public are seen at outdoor dinning areas at The Sydney Opera House, in Sydney, on Oct 17, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Thousands of children returned to Sydney's schools on Monday (Oct 18) after nearly four months of home learning as Australia's largest city eased more restrictions just a week after lifting its Covid-19 lockdown amid a surge in vaccination levels.

Masks are no longer mandatory in offices and larger groups are to be allowed in homes and outdoors after the state of New South Wales, home to Sydney, hit a double-dose inoculation rate of 80 per cent at the weekend among those older than 16.

The latest in a series of planned relaxations is part of a shift in strategy by Australia's largest cities towards living with the virus, though officials have warned it will bring more Covid-19 cases.

"This is not over," state premier Dominic Perrottet said on Monday, urging people to stick to the remaining health rules. "There is a long journey to go."

Shops, gyms and pubs can allow more vaccinated users while nightclubs can re-open to serve drinks to seated patrons, and limits on the number of guests at weddings have been dropped. But all must follow social distancing measures.

Monday's return to the classroom has been staggered, as the youngest and eldest - those in kindergarten, year 1 and year 12 go back - with all the rest scheduled for next week.

Daily infections in New South Wales continued their downward trend on Monday as cases fell to the lowest level in 10 weeks, at 265, well down from the pandemic high of 1,599 in early September.

Neighbouring Victoria reported 1,903 new cases, up from 1,838 a day earlier.

The state authorities disclosed on Sunday that Melbourne, the state capital, will exit its lockdown on Friday as the state looks poised to reach its 70 per cent vaccination target within days.

Melbourne's five million residents have been enduring an extended lockdown since Aug 5, the sixth in the pandemic, and have already spent around nine months under strict stay-home restrictions since March 2020 - the longest in the world, according to Australian media.

Border re-opening

Authorities in northeastern Queensland, which is free of Covid-19, said quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated residents from Sydney and Melbourne would begin from Dec 17, when the state's full vaccination rate is expected to top 80 per cent.

"That is good news for families to be reunited for Christmas," said the state's premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk.

The two cities have been hotspots of Australia's virus outbreak.

Fully vaccinated individuals can travel to Queensland when the level of inoculations stands at 70 per cent, but must quarantine at home for two weeks.

As states begin to ease curbs, the federal government said it would roll out its vaccination passport for international travel from Tuesday, a crucial step in its plan to let citizens travel abroad from next month.

Last week, authorities said vaccinated international travellers, initially only citizens and permanent residents, would be allowed to enter Sydney from Nov 1 free of quarantine.

With a tally of 145,000 infections and 1,543 deaths, Australia's exposure to the coronavirus has been relatively low.

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