Falling cases to accelerate Melbourne's road back from restrictions
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Falling cases to accelerate Melbourne's road back from restrictions

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Premier Daniel Andrews has confirmed more restrictions will be eased this weekend, beyond those he previously flagged, after declaring the state is winning the battle against coronavirus.

But he made it clear he would not budge on October 26 as the review date for Melbourne's 9pm-to-5am curfew, which is the subject of a Liberal-supported legal challenge.

The state recorded 15 new cases of coronavirus and five deaths on Wednesday, bringing Melbourne's crucial 14-day average down to 29.4, from 32.8 on Tuesday.

The state government's road map for easing restrictions in Melbourne is tied to the 14-day case average, and the target for the second step of reopening is for that number to be between 30 and 50 on September 28.

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Mr Andrews previously said he would make announcements on Sunday about what rules would be eased, and asked on Wednesday if he was intending to go further in winding back restrictions than originally planned, he said: "Yes, I am."

Under the current government strategy, minor restrictions set to ease from Sunday night include the opening of outdoor pools, childcare and some school levels resuming, and allowing public gatherings of up to five people from two different households.

More significant lockdown measures, including the five-kilometre radius rule and the 9pm-to-5am curfew, will not be lifted until late October at the earliest under the current plan – and only if the number of "mystery" cases with an unknown source over the previous 14 days is fewer than five.

Currently, the number of mystery cases (measured between September 7 and September 20) is 41.

Mr Andrews did not say which additional rules would be eased.

"We're looking at those and ... look at what the risk is. We don't want to do something that might seem quite small but could present a significant challenge to us in a couple of weeks' time.

"That's part of the nature of this virus. I know I've made the point many times but it's worth repeating again that what we do on Sunday, the full effect of that won't necessarily be apparent to us until a couple of weeks after then.

"That's why they have to be cautious steps, steady steps, and all the steps we take have to be safe."

Mr Andrews made it clear he would not budge on the October 26 review date for Melbourne's curfew.

"It won't be there forever," he said. "We are winning this battle and we will prevail, it's just a matter of us staying the course, not letting our frustration get the better of us, not allowing our desperate hope and wish that this were over to lull us into a sense of pretending that it is."

Mr Andrews said 15,741 tests had been conducted in the previous 24 hours, which was a "strong number".

"It's a powerful contribution ... it is critical in order to have a clear picture of how much virus is out there and the impact of restrictions and therefore the tolerance of easing those is, to make the best and most well-informed decisions," he said.

Wider emergency powers concern

Mr Andrews also indicated on Wednesday that he was willing to compromise on controversial new laws his government has proposed for more powers to enforce health directions in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government faces mounting opposition to the "omnibus bill" it has brought to Parliament, seeking powers for police to pre-emptively detain citizens suspected of being public health risks and allowing public servants and other government officials to be handed powers of arrest and detention.

Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett added her voice to the backlash on Wednesday, rebuking the government's "punitive" approach to fighting the pandemic and saying enforcement of restrictions should be a "last resort" in a public health crisis.

"It's not always about enforcing restrictions ... we're going further and further down the enforcement path and making people more and more concerned, and even concerned about coming out of lockdown, which I can't understand," Professor Bennett said.

Associate Professor Hassan Vally, a public health expert from La Trobe University, said he broadly supported the ability to detain people who are a risk of spreading COVID-19, but said scrutiny over the details was essential.

"Everything with this is in the implementation and the detail and making sure there’s oversight into how these powers are used and making sure there’s checks and balances," Professor Vally said.

"But as a general principle, I’d turn it around and say, what’s the alternative? If someone has the virus and could knowingly go out there spreading to people and potentially spreading it to vulnerable populations who could die, do we want to be able to do something about that, or do we want to let that go?"

Professor Vally said a similar law was introduced for HIV-AIDS in 1993, where those who had spread the virus willingly could be jailed for up to 25 years, before the Andrews government repealed the law in 2015.

The Premier flagged at his press briefing on Wednesday that Labor may be willing to compromise with a sceptical upper house to get the legislation through Parliament when it returns next month.

Mr Andrews compared the passage of the omnibus bill with the debate around the six-month extension of the government's state of emergency laws that passed with amendments from upper house crossbenchers this month.

"There was a lot of speculation with what would happen with the last bill, and we got an outcome," the Premier said. "I think this will be no different.

"Whether it's identical to the bill that's presented, that's entirely a matter for our colleagues in the Legislative Council."

Regional rules

Mr Andrews gave more detail on the rules for those who live in metropolitan Melbourne but work in regional Victoria, including those in industries able to operate in the regions but not in Melbourne. He said the primary rule was that if you can work from home you must work from home, regardless of industry or location.

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"A person travelling from metropolitan Melbourne to regional Victoria to work must have a valid work permit. The worker permit allows them to issue a permit to a worker who lives in metropolitan Melbourne," he said.

"When a person from metropolitan Melbourne is in regional Victoria, the metropolitan Melbourne restrictions apply to them, even though they're not in metropolitan Melbourne, the rules follow them to their work in regional Victoria."

Mr Andrews said it means those who live in metropolitan Melbourne are not allowed to go out for dinner in regional Victoria.

"They can't be engaging in that activity if they are [a permitted worker]. They have a permit to go to work and then to return back to their home in metropolitan Melbourne."

Mental health funding

The government announced it would spend more than $21 million to help mental health and alcohol and drug services prevent and prepare for coronavirus outbreaks, as the state moves towards "COVID normal". More than $8.6 million will go towards increased cleaning for the sector.

About $5 million would be used to reduce the need for staff to work across multiple sites by increasing hourly rates, back-filling staff who may be unable to work due to exposure to the virus, or retaining workers in the non-government organisation sector. More than $6.5 million in grants will be available for minor upgrades to reduce contamination risks, such as installing sensor taps or modifying facilities.

Mental Health Minister Martin Foley said the lockdown had taken a toll on the mental health of many people and providers had stepped up during the pandemic.

"We're ensuring these vital support services are safe and ready for those who need them," he said.

Hallam cluster growth halted

Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng said the growth of the Hallam cluster in Melbourne’s south-east had halted at 43 cases and had not moved for at least two days.

"There's still close contacts that are undergoing monitoring, but there's been no new cases," Professor Cheng said.

There were 834 tests done in the Casey council area on Tuesday, which Professor Cheng said was adequate, noting that about 2 per cent of the population of Melbourne had been tested in the past fortnight, assuming every person only received one test.

"In areas where we're particularly concerned, where there's been more cases, Brimbank, Casey, Hume, Wyndham. It's substantially more than 2 per cent, so pushing into the high 2 per cent to 3 per cent," he said.

Professor Cheng said the 41 active "mystery" cases with no known source in Melbourne were from 18 different council areas.

"Most of those are still in the areas where we are concerned," he said. "Casey had four unknown-source cases, Brimbank three, Hume three and Hobson's Bay four. So again, just the hint that there's other cases out there."

Although there were 15 new cases of COVID-19 recorded in Victoria over the previous 24 hours, the historical tally has increased by 24 cases after cases were accidentally removed from the system in July and August.

"They date back to July and August mainly, and they were inadvertently taken off the system. So as part of quality checking, we go back to make sure that the record is correct. But they were all followed up at the time. It was only in the process of taking them off from being an active case that they were removed."

More exposure sites revealed

Victorian health authorities have added two new exposure sites where people who were COVID-positive spent time last week.

Anyone who shopped at Melton Woolworths in Coburns Central Shopping Centre on September 16 or 17 should be monitoring closely for any symptoms of COVID-19.

The same advice has been issued for anyone who shopped at Niddrie Woolworths at the Central Shopping Centre on Keilor Road on September 18.

There were similar warnings already out for locations in Brunswick, Burwood East, Clifton Hill, Craigieburn, Hoppers Crossing, Narre Warren, Oakleigh South, Roxburgh Park, St Albans, Sunshine, Sunshine North and Port Melbourne.

The number of active cases in Victoria has dropped to 554, with aged care cases still making up half of that number.

People evacuated from aged care at the height of the crisis are being returned to the nursing homes where outbreaks occurred, as case numbers drop.

More than 600 elderly Victorians in care have died of the virus.

Active cases linked to aged care homes dropped by 44 on Wednesday, down to 284 from a peak of more than 2000 in mid-August.

Victoria's death toll from COVID-19 is now 771. The national death toll is 859.

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