Most of Victoria’s COVID rules will end in November, with one key exception

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Unvaccinated adults and older children will be barred from accessing all but basic services until 2023 under the Victorian government’s path back to freedom announced by the Premier on Sunday.

From 6pm on Friday, Victorians will be allowed to travel across the state, density limits at hospitality venues will increase only for fully vaccinated people, retail centres will reopen and masks will no longer be required outdoors, in time for the Melbourne Cup long weekend when 80 per cent of Victorians aged 16 and over will have had two vaccine doses.

Students will get an extra few days at school when face-to-face learning resumes for all year levels from Monday, November 1, four days ahead of schedule.

By the end of next month, almost all the current COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted, with a key exception. “If you’re not vaccinated, you’re not getting in,” said Premier Daniel Andrews.

Mr Andrews was unable to say when the vaccination rules might end, but he thought “it’s going to be there for the entirety of 2022”. He said the public health team was only confident in dropping almost all restrictions at 90 per cent because of large-scale vaccination requirements well into next year.

Universities, swimming pools, nightclubs and gyms will reopen, restaurants can have more diners inside, outdoor stadiums can welcome up to 5000 vaccinated people, and crowds at weddings and funerals will be permitted from Friday as Victoria moves beyond “locking people down to locking people out”.

The Premier said his government would not be looking at pausing the road map out of restrictions even if daily cases continued to climb and the pressure on the healthcare system increased, saying there was no better protection against the virus than vaccination.

“We need to normalise this, we need to move beyond this, we need to open up, and we need to recognise that Victorians have done what we asked them to do,” Mr Andrews said. “We’ll continue to support our health team … but we cannot perennially suppress this, we simply can’t.”

But while the Victorian Premier has indefinitely excluded unvaccinated people from the state’s reopening plan, NSW is set to lift most restrictions on all its citizens from December 1.

Victoria’s vaccination requirements will apply to children aged 16 and over, and be expanded to include children aged 12 and over once the 90 per cent milestone is reached around November 24.

Mr Andrews said those who were unvaccinated could still visit other people’s homes and shop for the basics, but they would be barred from the vast majority of other venues.

“Whether it’s a bookshop, a shoe shop, a pub, cafe, a restaurant, the MCG, the list goes on and on. You will not be able to participate like a fully vaccinated person because you’re not a fully vaccinated person,” he said, adding those people who had a medical exemption would be considered vaccinated under the rules.

The ongoing vaccine mandates are considered among the toughest in the world, and some are concerned about the policy being too punitive, saying it’s unnecessary to include children, particularly given more than 77 per cent of those aged between 12 and 15 in Victoria have already received a first dose.

“This policy is basically saying your [unvaccinated] 13-year-old can’t get a haircut indefinitely from a hairdresser,” said Julie Leask, a leading immunisation policy expert at the University of Sydney.

“Do we want to make kids suffer for a decision that a parent has made, whatever the reason, particularly given that children present less of a transmission risk of COVID?”

Professor Leask said while she understood the government’s passion for vaccination, it was essentially sustaining an underclass of people who had not been inoculated.

“You could well see a bit of migration of the unvaccinated to other states if this rule continues indefinitely.”

However, Deakin University epidemiology chair Professor Catherine Bennett said she would be surprised if all the vaccine mandates lasted until the end of next year. She said by not providing an end date, however, the government was keeping the pressure on people to be vaccinated.

Liberty Victoria president Julia Kretzenbacher believes a time limit should be placed on vaccine passports and the government should also consider less-restrictive measures of reducing COVID-19 spread, such as rapid testing.

“Coming out of lockdown, limiting access to some non-essential services provides an important incentive to encourage vaccination,” she said.

“However, with vaccination rates continuing to rise and likely resulting in more than 90 per cent of the population being fully vaccinated, long-term restrictions for those who have chosen not to be vaccinated is not proportionate to human rights.”

The Andrews government’s updated road map charting was announced on Sunday as Victoria recorded 1935 cases and the deaths of 11 people.

There are 787 people in hospital, 146 of whom are in intensive care, with 93 of them on a ventilator. Of the cases in intensive care, only 7 per cent are fully vaccinated.

The advice to work from home will end at the 90 per cent target and fully vaccinated Victorians will be permitted to return to worksites, while almost all events will be allowed to go ahead without density limits and caps on attendance. However, events where there are significant numbers of young children, currently not eligible for a vaccine, in attendance will not be permitted to operate at full capacity.

The head of the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health, Nancy Baxter, said Victoria’s rules for the unvaccinated would “undoubtedly” be among the strictest in the world.

In Italy, for example, people aged over 12 must present a COVID-19 digital green pass to visit festivals, swimming pools, museums, gyms and attend private wedding receptions. However, in addition to a COVID-19 vaccination, the pass can also be provided with proof of a recent negative test or recovery from the virus in the past six months.

Professor Baxter said Victoria was in a pole position to achieve an extraordinarily high rate of vaccination.

“I’m pretty confident we’re going to be over 95 per cent, including those aged 12 and over, which is phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal,” she said.

“Maybe we’re even going to be similar to Portugal, which I think has something like 97.8 per cent of its eligible population [vaccinated].”

Peter Walsh, the Nationals leader and opposition spokesman for Regional Victoria, said regional and rural areas should be allowed to enjoy the freedoms that come with 90 per cent double-dose vaccination rates as soon as they hit their targets, and not wait for Melbourne.

“Masks outdoors where people can socially distance should be dropped straight away,” Mr Walsh said.

“The key thing that has got to be resolved for a lot of regional businesses is to find a pathway to get overseas workers back into Victoria, whether it’s the horticulture sector, grain harvesting, meat processing, dairy industry – they all need access to reliable hard-working labour they’ve had in the past that comes from Pacific Islands, some parts of Asia and also from Europe.”

Meanwhile, the Property Council called on the Victorian government to mandate a return to offices for public sector workers.

Property Council Victorian executive director Danni Hunter said once mask rules were relaxed for indoors at 90 per cent double-dose and density limits lifted, there was no reason private and public workers couldn’t return onsite.

“We now call on the state government to take a leadership role and mandate a return to office for public sector workers who have not returned to office since the pandemic started,” Ms Hunter said.

“We want to see the state government shift its focus to revitalising our central city economy and partner with business and the City of Melbourne to turn Melbourne from a ghost town into the world’s most liveable city once again.”

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