MELBOURNE: Australia reported 1,607 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday (Sep 19) as states and territories gradually shift from trying to eliminate outbreaks to living with the virus.
Victoria, home to about a quarter of Australia's 25 million people, recorded 507 cases as its premier said a weeks-long lockdown will end once 70 per cent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, whether or not there are new cases.
Premier Daniel Andrews said the state might reach that vaccination threshold around Oct 26. About 43 per cent of Victorian residents have been fully vaccinated and just over 46 per cent of people nationwide.
"Lockdown will end. The (limited) reasons to leave your home and the curfew will no longer be in place," Andrews said, adding that a raft of restrictions would still be enforced.
Restaurants and pubs will be allowed to reopen but only with a maximum of 50 fully vaccinated people seated outdoors, while a ban on visitors to homes will remain in place.
But once the vaccination rate lifts to 80 per cent - projected by roughly Nov 5 - fully vaccinated Melbourne residents will enjoy a greater range of freedoms, including no masks outdoors, up to 10 visitors to homes, and the option to work from offices.
Andrews said the authorities aim to have 80 per cent of the state's eligible population fully vaccinated in time for the Melbourne Cup on Nov 2, leaving the door open for crowds on track at Australia's most famous horse race.
The health system was likely to come under "intense pressure" as a result of the changes, Andrews said, but the staggered reopening would help Melbourne to "normalise" its virus response.
"We cannot perennially or permanently suppress this virus. Lockdowns have been about buying time to get to 70 and 80 per cent vaccination," he said.
"We are fast approaching those milestones and at that point we have got to open the place up, because remaining closed forever has its own cost in every sense of that word."
The announcement came a day after several police officers were wounded and more than 200 protesters were arrested at a violent anti-lockdown demonstration in Melbourne.
Officers used pepper spray on the crowd, who defied stay-at-home orders to march through an inner-city suburb in opposition to pandemic restrictions.
The COVID-19 plan follows a federal scheme that will end lockdowns at a 70 per cent vaccination rate and gradually reopen international borders at 80 per cent.
NEW SOUTH WALES EASES SOME RESTRICTIONS
New South Wales has adopted a similar plan. Australia's most-populous state reported 1,083 cases on Sunday as it uses lockdowns and vaccination blitzes to fight an outbreak of the Delta variant that began in mid-June.
The state, home to Sydney, eased some restrictions on gathering on Sunday. About 52 per cent of people have been vaccinated in New South Wales.
After eliminating COVID-19 outbreaks last year through lockdowns, border closures and strict public health measures, Australia has acknowledged in recent months that it may not be able to eradicate Delta outbreaks.
The country has had just over 84,000 coronavirus cases, but two-thirds of the infections have occurred this year, mostly since June. There have been 1,162 deaths from COVID-19.