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Australia COVID-19 cases dive to 5-week low

Australia COVID-19 cases dive to 5-week low

Police on horseback patrol enforcing the wearing of face masks in Melbourne on Jul 31, 2020. (Photo: AFP/William West)

MELBOURNE: Australia headed for its lowest daily increase in coronavirus infections in five weeks on Friday (Aug 21) as the hotspot state of Victoria neared the midway point of lockdown, prompting the prime minister to hail "a week of increased hope".

While the rest of Australia eases restrictions, the home state of a quarter of its population is in a six-week lockdown due to a second wave of virus infections.

Victoria reported 179 new cases in the past 24 hours, from 240 a day earlier and down from more than 700 a day two weeks ago. The state reported nine deaths.

READ: 'Inexcusable': Australian inquiry blasts officials over cruise ship that spread COVID-19

The country's most populous state, neighbouring New South Wales, reported just one new case as an emergency Cabinet meeting of state and federal leaders discussed the prospect of relaxing closures of state borders that have been in place for months.

"Today's meeting of national Cabinet came during what I would describe as a week of increased hope," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a televised news conference.

"We're doing better than most and many of the developed world in this situation."

A medical personnel is seen outside the Florence Aged Care Facility in Melbourne, Australia Aug 17, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Sandra Sanders) FILE PHOTO: A member of the medical personnel is seen outside the Florence Aged Care Facility amid the second wave of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Melbourne, Australia August 17, 2020. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said new case numbers in his state had fallen faster than he expected after the state imposed a nightly curfew and shuttered many businesses.

"We are all pleased to see a 'one' in front of these additional case numbers," Andrews said. "To be at this point shows that the strategy is working."

READ: COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory in Australia: PM Morrison

With cases in Victoria declining and low or zero levels of infections elsewhere - some states had yet to report daily figures by mid-afternoon - business leaders have called for an easing of internal travel restrictions to alleviate the blow to business and the economy.

Many states have closed their borders to prevent the spread of infection, and Queensland's premier said earlier this week its border won't reopen to any states with cases of community transmission.

However, Morrison said Queensland had now agreed to relax a ban on interstate travel for people seeking health services. He said he would call for an agreed definition of a "hot spot" so the authorities and travellers could understand who was, or was not, allowed to travel interstate.

Qantas Airways said this week that state border closures were severely hampering a recovery in the domestic aviation market, while retail group Wesfarmers said the restrictions were causing "enormous hardship".

Other than the Victoria outbreak, Australia has largely avoided the high casualty numbers of many other nations with just under 24,500 infections and 472 deaths linked to the virus. 

READ: Australia's big businesses chafe at COVID-19 border closures

A flare-up in infections forced authorities two weeks ago to impose a nightly curfew and shut large parts of the state's economy.

The prime minister previously said Australia should make any coronavirus vaccine compulsory for its 25 million citizens bar medical exemptions. 

The Australian government estimates that up to 95 per cent of the population would need to be immune to the virus for it to be eradicated.

The country already has "no jab, no play" rules that mean kids have to receive vaccines for diseases including polio and tetanus to enrol in kindergarten or school.

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Source: Reuters/ac/zl

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