People in Melbourne flocked to the city’s pubs, restaurants and hair salons in the early hours of Friday after the world’s most locked-down city emerged from its latest round of restrictions, designed to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Australia’s second-largest city has so far endured 262 days, or nearly nine months, of restrictions during six separate lockdowns since March 2020, representing the longest cumulative lockdown for any city in the world.
In Melbourne, people were seen cheering and clapping from their balconies while drivers honked their car horns continuously at 11:59 pm on Thursday when the lockdown restrictions – in place since early August – came to an end.
Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews on Friday promised there would be “no more lockdowns” as the state reached its vaccination targets.
“We’re not having statewide lockdowns, we’re not having citywide lockdowns, because people have gone and done what we’ve asked them to do, and now we’re delivering what we said we’d do,” he was quoted as saying on Friday.
Melbourne is the state capital of Victoria.
Many venues in Melbourne, including food outlets and even hairdressers, opened as the clock hit midnight.
Josh Mihan, owner of The Bearded Man barbershop in Melbourne, told the Reuters news agency he was nearly booked out for the next month and was encouraging customers to make appointments for Christmas.
“We all love cutting hair and being on the floor is such a lovely feeling, being around people,” he said.
“I have urged our customer base, make sure you have booked in your Christmas cut.”
Similar jubilant scenes were seen in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, when authorities started easing restrictions there almost two weeks ago.
70 percent fully vaccinated
Slightly more than 70 percent of adults in Australia are now fully vaccinated, and many residents are planning to fly overseas again when international border restrictions are eased next month.
From November 1, fully vaccinated international travellers arriving in Sydney and Melbourne will no longer need to quarantine. Other cities have flagged similar plans as vaccination rates rise.
Qantas Airways said on Friday that it would speed up plans to restart flights to many destinations and deploy larger planes to cater to the “massive demand”.
Qantas said it would launch a new route from Sydney to Delhi in early December, and bring forward plans for flights to Singapore, Fiji, Johannesburg, Bangkok and Phuket.
“This is a wonderful day – Australia is ready for take-off,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said shortly after the Qantas announcement.
A quarantine-free travel bubble between Australia and Singapore could operate from next month, Morrison said, if an agreement is reached as expected. Thailand announced on Thursday it would be reopening to tourists from several countries, including Australia.
New Zealand also eyes reopening
Despite Delta outbreaks across the southeast from late June, COVID-19 numbers in Australia are still far lower than those of many other developed nations, with some 152,000 cases and 1,590 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
And with a once-stuttering vaccine rollout gaining momentum, authorities no longer plan to rely on extended lockdowns to suppress the virus.
Meanwhile, Australia’s neighbour New Zealand has announced that it will end its strict coronavirus lockdown measures and restore more freedoms only when 90 percent of its eligible population is fully vaccinated.
Once the poster child for stamping out COVID-19, New Zealand has been unable to beat an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 centred in Auckland, forcing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to abandon her elimination strategy and switch to living with the virus.
Ardern said on Friday that reaching a 90 percent inoculation rate at every District Health Board in the country would make the South Pacific nation one of the most vaccinated countries in the world.
As of Friday, some 68 percent of eligible New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, and 86 percent have had one dose.
“Ultimately we have balanced the desire to re-open quickly while continuing to keep people safe,” Ardern said at a news conference in the capital Wellington.
“Fully vaccinated people will be able to reconnect with family and friends, go to bars and restaurants and do the things they love with greater certainty and confidence,” said Ardern.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from New Zealand, said that the last few percentage points of the targeted vaccination number “may be hard to achieve.”
He also said that the government has been “under pressure” by the business sector and the public regarding easing the country’s lockdown.