Victorians have been praised for saving hundreds of lives and preventing tens of thousands of potential COVID cases as Melbourne prepares for a post-lockdown party.
The city will emerge from its sixth shutdown at 11.59pm on Thursday, five days earlier than previously planned after hitting its 70 per cent full vaccination target.
The north-west town of Mildura will also be released from lockdown a day early, despite reporting seven more virus cases on Thursday.
Acting chief health officer Ben Cowie, who signed the stay-at-home orders for lockdown to begin on August 5, said it had bought the state time to boost vaccination rates.
“We still have significant daily case numbers … but those numbers would be in the tens of thousands if not for the hard work of all Victorians,” he said on Thursday.
“We have prevented many thousands of people from ending up in hospital and many hundreds of deaths already.”
Professor Cowie warned “thousands more cases” would emerge as the city reopened and urged people to continue to wear masks and socially distance.
When stay-at-home orders are repealed, Melbourne residents will have spent 77 full days in their current lockdown, and a world record 263 days in total locked down since the beginning of the pandemic.
Deputy Premier James Merlino said Victorians had earned their freedoms back through “phenomenal vaccination rates”.
“In the coming days and weeks, I hope everyone enjoys those first reunions with their families, the first footy, netball, cricket training with the kids, the first pot and parma at the pub,” he said.
Under new rules for the city, people will be able to leave their homes for any reason and travel anywhere within metropolitan Melbourne.
The nightly curfew will be scrapped, home gatherings of up to 10 will be allowed, and hairdressers and hospitality businesses will reopen for the fully vaccinated.
However, in a last-minute change to reopening plans, hospitality workers including cooks, waiters and all other staff will need to be fully vaccinated to operate for seated service.
Following the hospitality sector voicing confusion over conflicting mandate rules, the Department of Health has clarified the reopening of businesses to fully vaccinated attendees includes workers as well as patrons.
Hospitality venues have been charged with vaccination status enforcement of patrons and staff, and Mr Merlino said inspectors would check compliance.
“We have more than 100 teams of authorised officers making sure that our pubs and clubs and cafes are doing the right thing,” he said.
Restrictions will ease further when the state reaches its 80 per cent target, forecast as early as October 30 by some analysts, including the removal of the ban on intrastate travel.
As Melbourne readies to celebrate lockdown’s end, the state notched another grim milestone after surpassing 1000 deaths.
Another 2232 locally acquired cases and 12 deaths were confirmed in Victoria on Thursday, taking its toll across the pandemic to 1005.
The daily local case number was also the state’s second highest of the pandemic and broke a five-day streak of fewer than 2000 infections.
Professor Cowie said the latest spike was not unexpected given the emerging trend of reporting higher numbers on Thursdays in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, the state government has announced it will open 30 vaccination centres across the state for walk-up Pfizer injections.