Sydney lifts COVID-19 lockdown after hitting 70% vaccination rate

© Kyodo News

Australia's largest city of Sydney ended an almost four-month COVID-19 lockdown on Monday, easing restrictions after hitting a targeted 70 percent of the eligible population being fully vaccinated.

The state of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, has relaxed a number of restrictions for only the fully vaccinated, including allowing visits to other households and access to restaurants, retail stores, cinemas and gyms that open with strict density caps in place.

"I say to everyone today, New South Wales you have earned it," New South Wales State Premier Dominic Perrottet told reporters on Monday.

Under the relaxed restrictions, fully vaccinated people can gather in groups of 10 in homes or 30 outdoors, while groups of 100 can attend weddings and funerals. Those in the Greater Sydney area will also be able to travel beyond their local council boundary or 5 kilometers from their homes for the first time since August.

More curbs will be relaxed around late October, once the state reaches 80 percent of the population aged 16 and over being fully vaccinated. However, the unvaccinated will have to wait until Dec. 1 to enjoy any of the new freedoms.

"The community has done a fantastic job to reach the 70 percent double dose target, but we must keep going. We want to get to as close to 100 percent double vaccination as possible to keep everyone safe," New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard said in a statement on Sunday.

The move makes New South Wales the first Australian state to exit lockdown without eliminating community transmission of the virus, after an outbreak of the Delta variant in June dashed hopes of continuing the successful elimination strategy Australia has pursued for most of the pandemic since early 2020.

The state has seen a clear downtrend in the number of new cases, reporting 496 new infections and eight deaths in the latest 24-hour period on Monday.

Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, is expected to follow New South Wales shortly to lift a weeks-long lockdown in the state of Victoria once the 70 percent vaccination threshold is reached, despite seeing a record 1,965 daily cases on Saturday, the highest daily figure in Australia since the pandemic began.

As vaccination levels increase, Australia is looking toward transitioning to living with the virus. The government plans to lift restrictions in stages on Australian travelers returning home on condition that the country hits inoculation rates of 70 and 80 percent and eventually on all international travelers.