Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

People walk down a deserted street in Melbourne's Chinatown on October 19, 2021 as the city prepares to lift some restrictions later in the week after enduring it's sixth lockdown since the start of the pandemic. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 21 October 2021

Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday confirmed the state had reached that target, with more restrictions set to ease as inoculations hit 80% and 90%

MELBOURNE: One of the world’s most locked-down cities will reopen late Thursday, with Melbourne residents hoping this sixth bout of stay-at-home restrictions will be their last.

Five million people in Australia’s second-biggest city have endured lockdowns totalling more than 260 days since the beginning of the pandemic.

But now that 70 percent of eligible people in Melbourne and surrounding Victoria state are fully vaccinated, restrictions that began on August 5 will be lifted.

“When the clock strikes midnight tonight, the lockdown is over,” state deputy premier James Merlino said, hailing the state’s “extraordinary efforts.”

“I hope everyone enjoys those first reunions with their families, the first footy, netball, cricket training with the kids, the first pot and parma (beer and chicken parmesan) at the pub.”

Half a dozen lockdowns have taken their toll on the once-buzzing city, which prided itself on a vibrant arts scene and cafe culture.

In 2021, it lost the mantle of Australia’s most liveable city amid violent anti-lockdown protests and a small exodus of residents to Covid-free regional towns.

Authorities on Thursday announced a fresh boost to mental health funding and services, in a nod to the burden placed on Melbourne residents.

Multiple studies have found elevated levels of psychological distress during the pandemic, official government research shows.

David Malaspina, owner of loved Melbourne eatery Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, said lingering Covid-safe rules were “exceptionally challenging” but he was excited to welcome back customers.

“Our city’s great because of the people that are here. We would like to see our people back,” he said.

While fully vaccinated Melbourne residents will enjoy increased freedoms from midnight, they cannot leave the city and retail shops must remain closed until the double-dose rate lifts to 80 percent — likely within weeks.

Limits on patrons at cafes, bars and restaurants will remain in place, squeezing business owners who are also grappling with staff shortages caused by international border closures.

Australia’s ABC News reported on Thursday that Victoria will also lift quarantine requirements for international travelers at the end of the month. Sydney and surrounding New South Wales state are also set to scrap the requirements on November 1.

While varying rules make it difficult to directly compare lockdowns — Toronto eateries were reportedly closed to diners for more than 360 days while Buenos Aires was under harsh restrictions for much of 2020 — Melbourne has spent among the most days under stay-at-home orders.

Praising the reopening as well as Australia’s soaring vaccination rates, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared “victory is in sight” in what he described as the “battle of our generation.”

“You’re about to start reclaiming your lives,” he wrote in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper.

“It’s a new chapter, as you begin to open up safely. And stay safely open.”

Australia so far has been spared the worst of the pandemic, recording about 150,000 cases and 1,500 deaths in a population of 25 million.

Authorities in Victoria have warned hospitals will likely come under “intense pressure” as a result of the decision to reopen even as Covid surges there, with 2,200 new cases recorded Wednesday.

But after pursuing “Covid zero” for much of the pandemic, Melbourne has followed Sydney’s lead in abandoning the strategy after failing to contain the highly infectious Delta variant.

Tony Kay, owner of Melbourne restaurant CopperWood, said he was confident the vibrant city would “be back better than ever.”

“Even better, as soon as the restrictions are lifted,” he said. “Melbourne is very resilient.”

More attacks will happen, says UK’s top counterterrorism cop

Updated 06 December 2021

More attacks will happen, says UK’s top counterterrorism cop

  • Neil Basu’s warning came during an inquiry into the 2017 bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester
  • ‘I’m going to be very blunt about this: We won’t stop them happening again, they will happen again. We have to try and minimize or reduce the risk,’ he said

LONDON: Britain’s highest-ranking counterterrorism police officer has warned that despite improvements in the ways agencies collaborate to prevent terror attacks, they cannot stop them all and it is inevitable that there will be more.

The comment by Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police Service came on Monday when he appeared at the inquiry into the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing. Twenty-two people were killed, including a number of children, when 22-year-old suicide bomber Salman Abedi detonated an explosive device at an Ariana Grande concert.

Basu, who serves as the National Police Chiefs Council lead for Counter Terrorism Policing, told the inquiry: “The horror of this makes you look very hard at, hopefully, preventing it ever happening again.”

But he added: “I’m going to be very blunt about this: We won’t stop them happening again, they will happen again. We have to try and minimize or reduce the risk and that means constantly trying to have a system that looks at improvement, no matter how busy we are.”

The inquiry into the attack in May 2017 is examining the activities of emergency services, including the police and intelligence agencies, in the lead-up to the attack.

Basu said the results of a joint police and MI5 review of a number of attacks that took place in 2017, including the arena bombing, were “humbling.” That review made 104 recommendations for improvements, four of which remain outstanding.

He added that cross-agency collaboration has improved since 2017 but that more work can yet be done to better align the work of agencies.

“We’re very close but we need to be closer still,” Basu said.

The inquiry also heard from Ian Fenn, the former headteacher of a Manchester school Abedi attended between 2009 and 2011. He said Abedi was not a good student and was, at times, “aggressive and rude” to teachers, and had been suspended for theft and for setting off fireworks.

However, there was “no indication,” Fenn added, that Abedi held extremist views at that time.

“He never came across as somebody who was opinionated, who was driven, that had an agenda,” he told the inquiry. “He was a typically lackluster child who drifted around.”

Pakistan army helicopter crashes in Kashmir; 2 pilots killed

Updated 06 December 2021

Pakistan army helicopter crashes in Kashmir; 2 pilots killed

  • Rescue helicopters and troops have been dispatched to Siachen

ISLAMABAD: A Pakistani army helicopter crashed on Monday in bad weather in the Pakistan-administered section of disputed Kashmir, killing the two pilots on board, the military said.
A statement from the military said the helicopter went down on the Siachen glacier, one of the world’s longest mountain glaciers, located in the Karakoram Range, and often referred to as the “highest battleground on earth” because of the wars that Pakistan and India have fought over the Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Rescue helicopters and troops have been dispatched to Siachen, the military said. No further details on the crash were immediately available. The two pilots were identified as Maj. Irfan Bercha and Maj. Raja Zeeshan Jahanzeb.
Siachen is known for tragedies, a desolate place where more troops have died from avalanches or bitter cold than in combat. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.

Gunmen kill town mayor, wound another in south Philippines

Updated 06 December 2021

Gunmen kill town mayor, wound another in south Philippines

  • Investigators were trying to identify the two gunmen and two companions who escaped on motorcycles and determine their motive
  • The two mayors were reportedly running in May 9 elections

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines: Motorcycle-riding gunmen killed a town mayor and wounded another in a brazen attack Monday that also killed their driver and caused villagers to flee to safety in a coastal village in the southern Philippines, police said.
Mayor Darussalam Lajid of Al-Barka town was killed and Mayor Alih Sali of Akbar town was wounded by at least two men armed with pistols while walking in Zamboanga city shortly after arriving on a speedboat from their island province of Basilan, police said.
A bodyguard of the two mayors was wounded and a driver who came to pick them up was killed, police said.
Investigators were trying to identify the two gunmen and two companions who escaped on motorcycles and determine their motive, including the possibility that it involved a political rivalry.
The two mayors were reportedly running in May 9 elections. Philippine elections have been marred in the past by bloody feuds and accusations of cheating, especially in rural regions with weak law enforcement and a proliferation of unlicensed firearms and private armies.

Italy imposes new COVID-19 rules on unvaccinated

Updated 06 December 2021

Italy imposes new COVID-19 rules on unvaccinated

  • Only those who have recently recovered from COVID-19 are exempt from the rules

ROME: People in Italy unvaccinated against COVID-19 can no longer go to the theater, cinemas, live music venues or major sporting events under new rules that came into force Monday.
Only those who have recently recovered from COVID-19 are exempt from the rules, which represent a significant tightening of restrictions in the face of rising infections.
New measures are also being enforced on public transport, with a so-called Green Pass showing proof of vaccination, recent recovery or a negative COVID-19 test now required even on local services.
A man in his 50s was fined $452 (€400) for not having his pass on Monday morning as he got off a bus near Piazza del Popolo in Rome, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
“I don’t have it because I wanted to get vaccinated in the next few days,” he was reported as saying.
A record 1.3 million Green Passes were downloaded on Sunday ahead of the change.
Meanwhile in Rome at the weekend, new rules requiring face masks to be worn outdoors in the busiest shopping streets came into effect.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by coronavirus in early 2020 and has one of the highest death tolls, at more than 134,000.
However, it is currently faring better than many of its neighbors, with 15,000 cases out of a population of 60 million reported on Sunday.
Almost 85 percent of over 12s have been vaccinated, a booster campaign is in full swing and jabs will soon be available for younger children.
The Green Pass was introduced in August for access to theaters and cinemas, museums and indoor dining, and extended to workplaces in October — a move that sparked widespread protests.
From now until January 15, a new “Super Green Pass,” which can only be obtained through vaccination or recent recovery, will be required for cultural activities — although not museums — and inside restaurants.
However, having a coffee at the bar of a cafe and eating outside is allowed without a Green Pass.
The restrictions will be further tightened in regions at higher risk of coronavirus.
Currently most of Italy is classed as the lowest of four levels, which range from white to yellow, orange and red.
Two regions are yellow — Friuli Venezia Giulia and Bolzano, which both border Austria, a country in partial lockdown over the number of cases there.

Omicron spreads in India, full vaccination in focus

Updated 06 December 2021

Omicron spreads in India, full vaccination in focus

  • India has fully vaccinated 51 percent of its 944 million adults and given at least one dose to 85 percent
  • Most other cases have been in people who have recently come from abroad

NEW DELHI: Cases of the omicron coronavirus variant have risen to 21 in India over the weekend and people must step up for vaccination, officials said on Monday.
The western state of Rajasthan reported the most number of omicron cases with nine, followed by eight in Maharashtra, two in Karnataka and one each in Gujarat and the capital New Delhi.
“The people of Delhi must get fully vaccinated, wear a mask and maintain social distancing,” its health minister Satyendar Jain said on Twitter.
He said the city’s first omicron patient was being treated at a state-run hospital. Some 94 percent of its adults had received at lease one dose, he added.
The country has fully vaccinated 51 percent of its 944 million adults and given at least one dose to 85 percent. Tens of millions of people, however, are overdue for their second dose despite ample vaccine supplies, government data shows.
India reported its first two omicron cases in the southern state of Karnataka on Thursday, in one person with no recent travel history.
Most other cases have been in people who have recently come from abroad, but doctors said the mutated virus was already spreading in the local population as well.
“omicron is here, community spread is underway,” surgeon Arvinder Singh Soin, who has been treating COVID-19 patients, said on Twitter. “Mask up. Get FULLY vaccinated.”
India reported 8,895 new COVID-19 cases for the past 24 hours, taking the total to 34.64 million. Deaths rose by 211 to 473,537.
Since a record surge in infections and deaths in April and May due to the Delta variant, new cases have hovered around 10,000 in the past few weeks.