With tough Covid-19 measures paying off, Australians head back to malls, cricket stadiums

Australia recorded seven new cases of Covid-19 on Friday, all of which involved international travellers in quarantine. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - A seemingly endless queue of cars inched along a freeway in eastern Melbourne on Friday (Nov 27), as traffic helicopters captured the footage from above.

Shoppers were flocking to the annual November sales at Chadstone mall, Australia's largest shopping centre.

This was in stark contrast with weeks ago, when the city centre was mostly shut as Melbourne endured one of the world's strictest Covid-19 lockdowns following an outbreak that included a cluster of cases linked to a butcher's at the mall.

But those days of curfews and retail closures now seem a distant memory. In Melbourne, and across Australia, the pandemic has largely been brought under control - and the nation is quickly returning to life as normal.

Restaurants and pubs are full. On Friday, the summer cricket season started with a socially-distanced crowd of 20,000 attending a match between India and Australia in Sydney. From this week, residents in Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, are no longer required to wear masks outdoors, while the state of New South Wales began allowing up to 3,000 people to gather at outdoor events.

At a shopping centre in Sydney, chief executive of Retail Apparel Group Gary Novis described Friday's trade as "unbelievable".

"It's the busiest I've seen it all year," he told The Sydney Morning Herald.

"We wouldn't have thought six months ago that we'd be here now."

Australia recorded seven new cases of Covid-19 on Friday, all of which involved international travellers in quarantine. Aside from the state of South Australia, which is gradually overcoming a small outbreak, no states or territories in Australia have recorded a new local case in more than two weeks.

Since the pandemic began, governments in Australia have responded zealously, enforcing strict lockdowns, social distancing rules and border closures as soon as outbreaks began to flare. In total, Australia has recorded 27,872 cases and 907 deaths.

Significantly, the state of Victoria - which has registered 73 per cent of all coronavirus infections in Australia - marked 28 days without any community transmission on Friday, which effectively means it has eliminated the virus.

Welcoming the news, the state government said Victoria had "achieved something precious", with its rare suppression of a large-scale outbreak likened to similar successes in China and Singapore.

"Today is a big day, a milestone day in what has been a really challenging year," said the state's Transport Infrastructure Minister, Ms Jacinta Allan.

"We can all feel really pleased and proud of the effort that each and every Victorian has made to achieving these significant results."

But she added: "The pandemic is not over. There is still a way to go. We still have to wait and see the impacts a vaccine brings."

Across Australia, border closures between states are being lifted, with travellers from Sydney and the state of Victoria due to be allowed to return to Queensland - a popular holiday destination - from next Tuesday. Travel agents have reported record numbers of domestic bookings.

Flights are resuming between Sydney and Melbourne, which was previously one of the world's busiest routes but has been at an effective standstill for four months due to Melbourne's outbreak. About 42 flights will now carry about 8,000 passengers each day between the cities, compared with about 25,000 a day before the outbreak began.

Incredibly, the busiest route in Australia in recent weeks has been between Brisbane and Cairns, both of which are in Queensland. Typically, this sector would be about the 11th busiest in the country.

The country's return to normal has even prompted discussion about easing Australia's strict international travel restrictions to allow foreign students back.

The economy is also showing some promising signs of rebound. Last month, there was a rise in both the number of new jobs and the number of hours worked.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week heralded Australia for its success in weathering "one of the most difficult years in their lived experience".

"When you look at Australia compared to the rest of the world, well frankly there is no comparison," he told reporters.

"Australia is in a handful of countries that stand out not just for how we've suppressed the virus, but how we have mitigated the economic impact on Australia."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.