Sydney eases more COVID-19 restrictions as vaccinations pass key milestone

SYDNEY, (Reuters) – Thousands of children returned to Sydney’s schools on Monday after nearly four months of home learning as Australia’s largest city eased more restrictions just a week after lifting its COVID-19 lockdown amid a surge in vaccination levels.

A faster-than-expected vaccine uptake brought forward further lifting of restrictions by several days as New South Wales (NSW), home to Sydney, topped the 80% double-dose immunisation rate over the weekend in people above 16. Authorities had pledged to begin easing curbs as rates reached 70%, 80% and 90%.

Masks will be off in offices, while more people can gather at homes and outdoors as Sydney readies to live with COVID-19 after spending large parts of this year virus-free until a Delta outbreak in mid-June. Retail stores, pubs and gyms can allow more vaccinated patrons and nightclubs can reopen for seated drinking, while weddings can have unlimited guests.

Students in preschool and years 1 and 12 returned to the classroom, while all others will get back next week.

Daily infections in New South Wales continued their downward trend on Monday as cases fell to the lowest level in 10 weeks, at 265, well down from the pandemic high of 1,599 in early September.

Neighbouring Victoria reported 1,903 new cases, up from 1,838 a day earlier. State authorities disclosed on Sunday that Melbourne, the state capital, will exit its lockdown on Friday as the state looks poised to reach its 70% vaccination target within days.

Melbourne’s 5 million residents have been enduring an extended lockdown since Aug. 5, the sixth in the pandemic, and have already spent around nine months under strict stay-home restrictions since March 2020 – the longest in the world, according to Australian media.

Australia has moved away from its COVID-19 suppression strategy after admitting the Delta strain was too virulent to contain. But some virus-free states have flagged they may delay even after more inoculations because of fears a precipitous reopening could overwhelm their health systems.

With some 143,000 cases and 1,531 deaths, Australia’s coronavirus numbers are relatively low.