Don’t Bank on Easing of Rules: Vic Premier Andrews

Premier Daniel Andrews has all but dashed Victorians’ hopes for significant easing of restrictions on Oct 25, as an outbreak in northern Melbourne grows. All staff and students from two schools in northeast Melbourne have been told to immediately get tested for COVID-19 after seven cases were reported on Saturday. Four of the new cases were diagnosed in suburban Preston and one is a student from East Preston Islamic College (EPIC). The slight spike in infections comes as active cases throughout the state dipped below 100 for the first time since June. The results have prompted health authorities to direct all staff and students from the college, and from nearby Croxton School, to get tested and self isolate, even if they aren’t experiencing symptoms. Both schools will be closed for the next fortnight after two students at EPIC and one at the Croxton School attended classes while infectious. The premier says tens of thousands of tests are still being processed and authorities need the results to make informed decisions on restrictions, due to be announced on Sunday. “I just want to caution people from banking that tomorrow I’ll be making a whole series of detailed announcements about opening up,” he told reporters on Saturday. “It will be a very late night and a very early morning, so we can get as many results on the table so that we can have the most complete picture available to us.” “It would be wrong to call people to test and then make decisions without having looked at those test results.” Andrews comments came a day after 16 people were arrested and 96 fines issued during an anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne, which at times erupted into violent scuffles between police and demonstrators. He indicated health authorities would not lock down the affected suburbs as had been done in the past, but rather may delay the easing of restrictions for the whole city. Some 800 residents in Melbourne’s northern suburbs have already been isolating because of the EPIC outbreak, which began when a family supposed to be isolating mistakenly sent a child back to school. But Andrews disputed media reports that the family, and others in the area for whom English is a second language, were not provided the translation support they needed. “The notion that whenever something happens that ought not to happen, that is somehow a fundamental deficiency in our public health response is not fair.” Victoria’s head of testing and community engagement Jeroen Weimar said some of the family members spoke “excellent English”. “It’s simply wrong to say that there’s not translated material and … interpreter services offered,”  Andrews said. Community, faith and school leaders have also been helping get the message out, he added. Over 20,000 warnings have also been sent via text and email to taxi and Uber drivers who might have visited the area, asking they present for testing. Further north, a number of secondary contacts at Sirius College in Broadmeadows and Ilim College are being tested after they were linked to separate close contacts of a confirmed case. The average number of daily cases in the fortnight up to Friday was five for metropolitan Melbourne and 0.2 in regional Victoria. The state’s death toll remained at 817 on Saturday and the national figure at 905, with only one death in the past week. There are 10 cases in the two weeks up to Wednesday which have a mystery source. Tiffanie Turnbull in Melbourne

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Racing Minister Admits ‘It Was Mistake’ as Backlash Forces Cox Plate Meeting Backflip

The Victorian government has admitted that public outcry on social media—not public health advice—was the reason they revoked the exemption allowing the Cox Plate celebration. Victoria’s Crisis Council involving eight senior ministers, granted a special exemption on Oct. 20 for the W.S Cox Plate’s 100th meeting on Saturday, allowing owners and trainers to gather at the grounds to celebrate the occasion. The 137-year-old Moonee Valley Racing Club has a capacity of around 40,000 people. But it’s COVIDSafe plan submitted to the government for the 100th W.S. Cox Plate meeting was limited to just 1,250 people. Within a few hours, the Victorian Racing Minister, Martin Pakula was forced to rescind the decision after a widespread social media outcry against the exemption being granted so quickly and easily. Avid racing fan Pakula took to Twitter to concede, “It was a mistake, given that other restrictions remain in place, and we’ve heard the community feedback,” he said. Pakula’s backflip has been met with mixed responses on social media, with some frustrated it was ever allowed, and others expressing sentiments of respect for admitting his mistake. Eastern Metropolitan Region MP Matt Bach said he was surprised by the original announcement in a letter to state Health Minister Martin Foley, noting that the limitations on religious gatherings were still at no more than five. Victorian Minister for Mental Health, Martin Foley at a press conference at Treasury Theatre, in Melbourne, Australia on July 13, 2020. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images) “This struck me as a little odd, given that the retail, hospitality and beauty industries are shut down. And religious services in my electorate, even outdoors are limited to only five people,” Bach said. Another Twitter user, therealhoff74 who appeared to be a neighbour of the racing grounds, expressed gratitude for the decision. “Thank you. The race track is at my doorstep, and I don’t feel comfortable having that many people nearby,” they wrote on Twitter. Speaking at a press conference on Oct. 21 to explain how the decision was made and why it was changed so quickly, Pakula admitted he should have taken a step back and see how it would be perceived outside the racing industry. The Chief Health Officer determines that it was permitted. But that doesn’t make it necessarily the right thing to do, Pakula admitted. Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed earlier in a press conference that the Cox Plate event would not go ahead in the way it was planned. He also offered an apology while hinting that there would be a further easing of restrictions announced on Sunday, Oct. 25. The Victorian Labor government have been under severe pressure recently to justify some of its tough social distancing measures used to combat the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus. Under the current rules, gatherings are limited to five, masks are to be worn everywhere in public, and travel limits of 25 kilometres exist for those in Melbourne. Victoria’s 14-day CCP virus average is 6.4, with single-digit infections recorded for over a week. An average of five or less was originally set as the trigger point to lower restrictions.

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Five Melbourne Suburbs on Covid-19 Alert

Residents of five suburbs in Melbourne’s north, including 120 people living in a social housing block, have been urged to get tested if they experience symptoms of COVID-19 after a school student tested positive. The pupil attended East Preston Islamic College, which has been closed until further notice for deep cleaning, as contact tracing gets underway. The suburbs subject to the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services alert include Dallas, Roxburgh Park, Broadmeadows, Preston and West Heidelberg. “The college has taken positive steps to manage this situation and is working closely with us,” the state’s Commander of Testing Jeroen Weimar said in a statement late Wednesday night. “We need everyone working together to tackle this virus.” School staff and students, and their households, will now quarantine for 14 days. Austin Health and Banyule Community Health will monitor those isolating either at home or in accommodation. “Extensive contact tracing is underway and we expect that as part of this work, additional cases will be detected,” Weimar said. The 120 residents of a housing block in Broadmeadows have been told to isolate 48 hours and monitor for symptoms of the infection after authorities established links to the school. “This time frame allows for the department to ensure the community is aware of the situation and for residents to get tested and get their results back before determining what the next steps are,” Weimar said. Asymptomatic testing will be offered at a testing station set up on-site. A close contact linked to the East Preston school has also been identified at Dallas Brooks Primary School, which has also been closed for deep cleaning as a precautionary measure. A community door-knocking program will start on Thursday to alert residents in the suburbs about the potential exposure to coronavirus and provide information about testing sites. It comes after a text message was sent out on Wednesday afternoon alerting people who lived in or were visiting the suburbs to get tested. Elsewhere, a schoolies celebration at Rye on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula has officially been called off by the local council. The decision follows the cancellation of schoolies festivities on the Gold Coast and Byron Bay. Although Rye is accessible under the 25km radius coronavirus restrictions rule, Mornington Peninsula Shire chief executive John Baker urged school graduates to stay away. “It’s just not worth the risk of travelling down here,” he said on Wednesday. “Look at options in your local area, stay safe and celebrate at home.” On Wednesday, Victoria reported no deaths and only three new cases. Victoria is poised to unveil a further easing of coronavirus restrictions on Sunday, after six straight days with new cases below five. The state’s death toll remains at 817 and the national figure is 905, with only one death in the past week. Benita Kolovos in Melbourne

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Victorian Chief Health Officer’s Email Leak Sets Off Hotel Inquiry Restart

Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry will hold an extraordinary hearing on Tuesday after receiving new evidence from the state’s Department of Human Health and Services last week, including emails from Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton that bring into question his testimony. On Oct. 17 a spokesperson from the hotel quarantine inquiry announced an extraordinary sitting will be held on Tuesday at 2 p.m. AET. But no further insight was given as to why or who will be called upon. Sutton has become the latest senior government representative to come under fire for giving an alleged inaccurate testimony. But has not been contacted by the board of inquiry since the announcement to restart. At a press conference on Oct. 19, Sutton responded, “No,” when asked if the inquiry had contacted him over the weekend. Allegations that Sutton gave a false testimony arose following emails obtained by The Age on Oct. 15 that appear to show he knew about private security being used in the quarantine program before the CCP virus outbreak in May, contradicting what he told the inquiry. Sutton told the inquiry in September that he was not aware private security were guarding quarantined returnees until he was notified about the outbreak at Rydges on Swanston. The Age notified the board of inquiry about the emails, prompting DHHS to provide further evidence. In light of the revelation, Sutton has said that he stands by his statement to the inquiry that he “was not aware” about the use of private security before the outbreak in late May. When pressed by reporters on Oct. 18 to explain how he missed that detail, Sutton said he receives around 150 emails a day, and almost 30,000 since the start of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus. “If I have missed a reference to security … when the program was established, I’m sorry, it hasn’t registered,” he said. “So when I’ve spoken to the inquiry to say exactly that, that was the case. Sutton claims that when he replied to an email thread on March 27 involving DHHS and the federal government’s Home Affairs Assistant Secretary Sandra Jeffery, he “did not register anything was being said about private security,” he said. The email discovery and additional submissions to the inquiry from DHHS come after requests were made to Premier Daniel Andrews and all his office staff to provide their phone records. After the final hearing by Andrews on Sept. 25 additional submissions were made by then-Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and then-Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton. Mikakos resigned the day after Andrews’ testimony after he pointed accountability of crucial decisions on her shoulders. Days after her resignation she said the board of inquiry should “treat with caution” the premier’s evidence, suggesting that it is implausible no one called for the use of private security guards. This sparked a probe into Andrews’ testimony. Ashton’s phone records showed there was a six-minute window that was not accounted for in the testimonies. Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) Secretary Chris Eccles resigned after phone records showed he spoke to Ashton in that window, contrary to what he told the inquiry. The Hotel Quarantine Inquiry was formed to clarify who decided to use private security instead of police or Australian Defence Forces. Closing statements made by Assisting Counsel Rachel Ellyard on Sept. 28 said that the decision came about through a “creeping assumption.” The director of the University of Melbourne’s Microbiological Diagnostic Unit, Benjamin Peter Howden, previously told the inquiry that over 99 percent of all current infections trace back to the outbreak in the Melbourne hotels. Failures within the program are said to be responsible for the second wave of CCP virus cases which has seen over 800 deaths attributed to COVID-19. The inquiry had closed for sittings on Sept.28 after hearing from 63 witnesses, it is due to deliver its final report on Nov. 6.

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Victoria Has No Virus Deaths, One New Case

Victoria has confirmed it only had one new virus case and no new deaths. There was a delay in firming up the daily numbers on Tuesday morning because the Department of Health and Human Resources was apparently checking one of two new cases initially reported. When the figures were settled, it said one of the infected persons had a Victorian address but was quarantining interstate after returning from overseas. Melbourne’s 14-day rolling average of new cases also dropped below seven to 6.4 and the number of mystery cases in the city from October 4-17 also fell by two to 13. The latest figures come as the state government is reportedly looking at scaling back its trouble-plagued hotel quarantine program and using electronic monitoring devices for some returned travellers. The use of such devices was being considered as one way of making sure returned travellers are isolating, The Age reported on Oct 20. Prominent lawyer and human rights advocate Julian Burnside, the president of Liberty Victoria, said he backed electronic monitoring as an alternative to hotel quarantine. “It seems to me the idea is a good one, as long as it saves people from something worse,” he told ABC radio. “I don’t like the idea of electronic monitoring, but if it’s an infringement of individual liberties for the purpose of making the country safer, which is the case, then I think it’s justifiable. “If it saves you the horror of being locked up in a hotel room for two weeks, then I think it’s justifiable as well.” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has reassured Melburnians they won’t have to wait until 2021 before they can travel to regional areas. A so-called “ring of steel” separating metropolitan Melbourne from regional Victoria remains in place despite an easing in coronavirus restrictions in the city on Sunday night. Andrews wants that restriction and others eased before Christmas, but the premier has yet to commit to a date. Shepparton and Kilmore have been mopping up outbreaks in recent weeks after a COVID-positive truck driver from Melbourne stopped in the regional centres. Even as COVID-19 case numbers narrow, the premier said feedback from regional Victorians was clear. “They don’t want a situation where that’s put at risk by people making trips into regional Victoria that aren’t absolutely necessary,” Andrews told reporters on Monday. The premier also on Monday conceded New Zealanders can enter Victoria despite the state not signing up to be a part of a trans-Tasman travel bubble negotiated by the federal government. The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services’ website has now been updated to accommodate the new situation. Meanwhile, people living in Melbourne can now travel 25km from home and have greater freedom when it comes to social activities and exercise. The state’s death toll remains at 817 and the national figure is 905. Melbourne

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Premier Andrews Concedes Kiwis Free to Enter Victoria

Premier Daniel Andrews has conceded New Zealanders are free to enter Victoria despite the state not signing up to be a part of the trans-Tasman bubble. About 55 Kiwis have travelled from Sydney on to Melbourne since the arrangement began on Friday, with more expected to arrive on Oct 19. Some have also arrived in Hobart, Adelaide and Perth, where they will be required to undergo 14 days of hotel quarantine. Andrews maintains the federal government did not inform him New Zealanders were entitled to travel beyond participating states and territories. “People turned up without us knowing. People turned up without the WA government knowing. People turned up, I assume, without the Tasmanian government knowing,” Andrews told reporters on Monday. “These bubble arrangements were presented very clearly as just that – a bubble – and that if you wanted to be part of it, you could.” “We said no, we don’t think we should be at this time, however, it seems we are in it so we will make the best of it.” He said the Department of Health and Human Services’ website had been updated on Sunday night to reflect the situation. “We will provide the best health advice because, despite the fact that we didn’t want to be in the bubble, it seems like the bubble applies to every part of our country, not just those that said yes,” Andrews said. He said New Zealanders arriving in Victoria would not be required to quarantine due to the low number of coronavirus cases in their home country. But they will have to comply with the state’s coronavirus restrictions, which were eased on Monday. People living in Melbourne can now travel 25km from home and they have greater freedom when it comes to social activities and exercise. Hairdressers and other industries can also operate for the first time in months, though retail and hospitality will have to wait until November 2 before they can reopen. Andrews said the date could be brought forward if case numbers remained low. Benita Kolovos in Melbourne

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Victoria State Wakes to Fewer Covid-19 Rules

Victorians have woken to more freedom this morning after COVID-19 restrictions were eased but many are unhappy the hospitality and retail industries have been left out. From Monday, Melburnians will be allowed to travel 25km from home and there will be no limit on time spent outdoors. Outdoor gatherings will also increase from five people to 10 from two households, while facilities such as skate parks, golf courses and tennis courts will reopen. Melburnians will also be able to get a haircut, see an allied health professional, renovate their home, wash their car and bid at an auction, though a number of strict safety protocols will be in place. “I have announced today what is safe but will not undermine the sacrifice, the hard work, the pain, the amazing efforts that Victorians have put in,” Andrews told reporters on Oct 18. In regional Victoria, up to two people plus dependents will be allowed to visit homes once a day, while hospitality venues can increase their capacity to 70 people outside and 40 people inside. The “ring of steel” that separates metropolitan Melbourne from regional Victoria will remain in place. Melbourne will take another step on November 2, with hospitality venues be able to seat 50 people outside and 20 people inside, while retail and beauty and personal care services can resume. People will be allowed to host a maximum of two people plus dependents at their homes once a day. Andrews, however, indicated the next step could be brought forward, depending on case numbers across Victoria in the next week. But many industry groups are not impressed. Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said it was an “an inexplicable and unacceptable delay”. “There is no sound reason to continue the restrictions on business, especially with case numbers clearly on a downward trajectory,” she said in a statement. The Australian Industry Group’s Victorian head Tim Piper said businesses and Victorians expected more. “There is still no long-term coherent plan to rebuild a shattered Victorian economy,” Piper said. Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said restrictions should have been eased further, especially with respect to small businesses. Victoria recorded two new coronavirus cases on Sunday – its fifth consecutive day in the single digits – and no deaths. The state’s death toll from the virus 816 and the national figure is 904. Benita Kolovos in Melbourne

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Aussie States Call for Tighter Controls as New Zealand Travellers Arrive

Arrivals from New Zealand as part of new the trans-Tasmania travel bubble have entered Victoria and Western Australia leading to disputes between state and federal governments. Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews has reiterated he wants no part of the travel bubble that started on Friday with New Zealand at this stage but revealed 55 Kiwis have apparently turned up in his state after landing in New South Wales. “We have been able to find 23 … we are still working to find the balance,” he told reporters on Sunday. “We have been given a list, 12 hours after they arrived. We are ringing them, one of them was in Byron Bay.” But acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge insists Victorian chief medical officer Brett Sutton was at the meeting where authorisation was given for individuals who arrived in Sydney from New Zealand to then travel to Victoria. “So the Victorian government was present when it was discussed, they were made aware that this was going to occur, they raised no objections in the meetings,” Tudge told reporters. But Andrews said this was not the case. “Seriously, my advice to minister Tudge is, instead of stubbornly defending this, work with us and let’s make sure Victoria is not part of a bubble we never agreed to be in,” the premier said. Meanwhile, twenty-three people who recently travelled from New Zealand to Australia have arrived in Perth. Health officials were advised by police of the arrivals on Saturday and say they have been taken into hotel quarantine for 14 days. All travelled through Sydney and were identified as soon as they arrived at Perth Airport. Under the trans-Tasman travel bubble, anyone arriving from New Zealand is currently restricted to NSW and the Northern Territory. WA Premier Mark McGowan said the situation was not ideal. “We would prefer better management of these arrangements but this is something that happened that was outside of our control,” he said. The premier initially said 25 people had travelled to Perth through the NZ bubble arrangement but that figure was later revised to 23 by police.

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Australian Premier Eases Some COVID-19 Limits for Melbourne

Melburnians will be allowed to travel 25 kilometers from home and there will be no limits on time spent away from their residence as a part of eased COVID-19 restrictions due to start Monday. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the lifting of some restrictions on Sunday, after authorities confirmed the Australian state had two new cases of coronavirus and no further deaths. But Melbourne businesses must wait longer for eased restrictions, with Andrews confirming that changes to retail, hospitality and “personal care” services won’t change until November. “There is some optimism, confidence even, but if things continue this week as they have the last five days, we may be able to bring that forward,” he said of the wait for business operators. Groups of up to 10 people from two households can gather outdoors and two adults and their dependents will be allowed to visit another property each day. For months, Melburnians have only been permitted to travel within a five kilometer radius of their home and only for a maximum period of one or two hours. “I’ve announced today what is safe but what will not undermine the efforts that Victorians have put in,” Andrews said. In August, Victoria was reporting more than 600 COVID-19 cases each day, and double figure deaths, peaking at 59 on Spet. 4. For the past five days, the state has had single-digit new diagnoses each day, and there have been four deaths in that period, with none in the last four days. The latest rolling daily case count is 7.5 in metropolitan Melbourne for the fortnight up to Saturday. Regional Victoria’s two-week average is 0.5. The statistics mean Victoria’s coronavirus death count remains at 816 and the national toll is 904. Sunday’s eased restrictions do not change mandatory mask wearing whenever Victorians leave home. Health authorities continue to investigate Victoria’s 15 cases for the fortnight up to Thursday, which have no known source.

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Two New Cases, No COVID-19 Deaths in Victoria

Another day of single-figure COVID-19 diagnoses, and no deaths, has Victorians keenly awaiting news of easing lifestyle restrictions. The state reported two new cases on Sunday and a rolling daily case count of 7.5 in metropolitan Melbourne for the fortnight up to Saturday. Regional Victoria’s two-week average is 0.5. The statistics mean Victoria’s coronavirus death count remains at 816 and the national toll is 904. Premier Daniel Andrews is expected to reveal significant changes to Melbourne’s restrictions on movement and gatherings on Sunday. The announcement will not change mandatory mask wearing whenever Victorians leave their home. Federal health minister Greg Hunt has urged the Victorian government to ease restrictions in line with New South Wales. “The epidemiological conditions for a COVID-safe reopening of hospitality, movement (and) family reunions among others, have now been firmly met,” Hunt posted on Twitter on Saturday. “Victoria should now be able to move to the next step in line (with) NSW.” However Andrews said Hunt was not an epidemiologist and accused him of “playing games”, before adding that he would not be rushed in reopening Victoria. “We are not going to risk everything that Victorians have sacrificed. And that’s why this strategy is not about racing to open up (and) running to COVID-normal—it’s about safe and steady steps,” the premier said. “We are right on the edge now of defeating this second wave. It’s not occurred in many countries, if any, across the world.” Melbourne residents are subject to restrictions including a two-hour daily outdoor exercise window within five kilometer of home, and no more than five people from two households can gather outside. Andrews has confirmed Sunday’s announcements will be “much more in the social space than in the economic space,” dashing the hopes of those in retail and hospitality industries. Health authorities continue to investigate Victoria’s 15 cases for the fortnight up to Thursday which have no known source. By Gus McCubbing

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One New Virus Case and No Deaths in Victoria

Victoria has reported one further case of COVID-19 and no deaths as Melbourne moves towards the easing of some lifestyle restrictions. Saturday’s statistics show the 14-day rolling average of new cases up to Friday stands at 8.1 for metropolitan Melbourne and 0.5 for regional areas. The state’s coronavirus death toll remains at 816 and the national tally is 904. Melbourne residents are expecting COVID-19 restrictions to be eased on Oct 18 but it is unclear how much freedom will be regained. Premier Daniel Andrews has indicated the changes would be more “in the social space”, prompting pleas from businesses operators for relief. Under the government’s roadmap out of restrictions, the next step was set to begin in Melbourne on October 26. A 5km-from home limit was expected to be scrapped, the retail and hospitality industries reopened, public gatherings of up to 10 allowed outside and “household bubbles” of five indoors. The step was moved forward to Monday but an outbreak at a Chadstone Shopping Centre store meant the city wouldn’t meet its required case targets. Andrews has confirmed Sunday’s announcements will be “much more in the social space than in the economic space”, dashing the hopes of those in retail and hospitality industries. On Friday the business community called for restrictions to be eased enough for businesses to reopen their doors. Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA) chief executive Peter Strong criticised the premier’s office, saying until recently the state government had not paid proper heed to small business concerns. “When the Victorian premier stands up on Sunday to announce changes to the state’s harsh lockdown laws, he needs to take into account health considerations … all of them,” Victorian head of the Australian Industry Group Tim Piper said. “We also need to take a balanced approach to how we deal with it and not have the cure become worse than the disease.” Piper called for hospitality to be able to operate outdoors and for a greater return of manufacturing and construction. Meanwhile, the one-way trans-Tasman travel bubble with New Zealand ran into problems on its first day as a group of 17 Kiwi travellers to Sydney got on a flight to Melbourne. Victoria is not part of the bubble and the travellers were detained and turned back. Health authorities continue to investigate Victoria’s 17 cases of COVID-19 for the fortnight up to Wednesday which have no known source.  Andi Yu in Melbourne

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