Australian state eases COVID-19 curbs for Christmas as new cases dwindle

Vehicles queue at the Bondi Beach drive-through coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre in the wake of an outbreak in Sydney, Australia, December 22, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

(Reuters) -Australia’s most populous state on Wednesday relaxed coronavirus restrictions for Christmas following a second straight day of low case numbers, though parts of Sydney’s northern seaside suburbs remain under lockdown.

New South Wales (NSW), of which Sydney is the capital, reported eight locally acquired cases on Wednesday, unchanged from Tuesday in another sign that social distancing and mass testing have brought a dangerous new outbreak under control.

About a quarter of a million residents in Australia’s largest city were ordered to stay home for five days from Dec. 19 as authorities rushed to contain the outbreak, which has now grown to 97 cases.

Residents in the affected areas were told not to leave their homes except for grocery shopping, work, emergency medical treatment or visiting an isolated relative.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said those restrictions would remain in place for the northern-most suburbs under lockdown, though residents now would be allowed to host up to five neighbours on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

The restrictions were more relaxed for the southern part of the Northern Beaches suburbs, where the limit on guests was 10 including people from other parts of Sydney.

The full lockdown for the entire region would resume on Dec. 27, the premier said.

“They’re modest tweaks and modest changes to account for the fact that everybody has had a very difficult year,” Berejiklian said.

“We are not prepared to take any further steps than what I’ve outlined. We think the risk is too great to go further than what we have and on the 27th we want everybody to revert back to what we have today.”

NSW authorities have added dozens of venues across the city linked to the cluster and urged Sydney’s 5 million residents to remain vigilant.

Australia has reported more than 28,200 coronavirus cases and 908 deaths since the pandemic began.