SYDNEY (REUTERS) - An Australian doctors group warned that a too-rapid easing of Covid-19 restrictions in Sydney could put pressure on health systems and risk lives, as the country's biggest city prepares for an end to more than 100 days in lockdown.
Many restrictions are due to be lifted on Monday (Oct 11) after New South Wales state hit a targeted 70 per cent rate of full vaccinations for its adult population, and the authorities on Thursday bumped up permitted limits for home gatherings, weddings and funerals in the capital Sydney.
Owners of restaurants and other public venues are now scrambling to arrange supplies and staffing.
While an easing of restrictions on travel for Sydneysiders outside of their local government areas had previously been flagged, authorities on Thursday also decided to bump up permitted limits for home gatherings, weddings and funerals - earning the ire of the Australian Medical Association (AMA).
While movement around the city will be permitted from Monday, restrictions on travelling to regional areas remain.
"New South Wales must not be reckless at this critical time," AMA President Omar Khorshid said in a statement late Thursday, adding that "too fast or too early" could result in avoidable deaths and the reintroduction of lockdowns.
State Premier Dominic Perrottet has defended his move to bring forward the relaxation of several restrictions amid a steady fall in infections, saying the pandemic "is an economic crisis too".
Officials have devised a staggered plan to ease curbs in the coming weeks when full adult inoculation rates hit 70 per cent, 80 per cent and 90 per cent, a boost for Australia's A$2 trillion (S$1.99 trillion) economy as it tries to avoid a second recession in as many years.
Mr Stuart Knox, owner of Fix Wine, a downtown restaurant and bar, said it was exciting to be re-opening even if preparing was difficult.
"We're still flying blind, we've got no idea as a CBD restaurant how many people are coming back and it's all murky what we're going to deal with," he said.
He added he was still unsure how to check patrons' vaccination status as required since a promised smartphone app was not yet operational.
Daily infections in New South Wales rose on Friday after falling for the past seven days, as first-dose inoculations in people over 16 neared 90 per cent. A total of 646 cases were reported, the majority in state capital Sydney, up from 587 on Thursday.
Eleven new deaths were registered.
State Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said genomic sequencing has uncovered a new Delta strain in eight new cases and more tests will be conducted to trace the source.
"There is no indication that this new strain presents any differences regarding transmission, vaccine effectiveness or severity," she said.
Neighbouring Victoria, meanwhile, logged a record 1,838 new cases on Friday, the highest number of any state in the country since the pandemic began, exceeding the previous high of 1,763 set three days earlier, and five new deaths.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews - one of the most vocal proponents of tough restrictions to rein in outbreaks - was fined A$400 (S$396.50) on Friday for breaching the state's mask mandate after media photographed him walking mask-free from his car to two news conferences this week.
"Whilst this was an oversight, oversights matter. Everyone needs to follow the rules and I am sorry it occurred," the Australian newspaper quoted Andrews saying.
Australia is fighting a third wave of infections fuelled by the Delta variant that has locked down Sydney and Melbourne, its largest cities, and the capital Canberra, forcing the closure of thousands of businesses and people to remain at home.
Still, the country's Covid-19 numbers are far lower than many comparable countries, with some 122,000 cases and 1,394 deaths.
Neighbouring New Zealand, which had stayed largely virus-free for most of the pandemic until a Delta outbreak in mid-August, reported 44 new local cases, up from 29 on Thursday.