Regional leaders split over pace of reopening as end of lockdown in sight

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Most of regional Victoria is expected to be released from lockdown next week, but community leaders are divided, with some frustrated restrictions are not being lifted immediately and others favouring a gradual easing of rules.

Premier Daniel Andrews said the government would confirm in coming days when regional Victoria could reopen.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (centre), Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton (left) and COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar (right) on Wednesday.Credit:Getty

“We do think we can have some positive news for regional Victoria next week,” he said.

However, he insisted substantial restrictions would still remain in place and only authorised people would be allowed to travel from Melbourne to regional Victoria.

“It will not be a full opening up. There will not be hundreds of people at the pub or the restaurant or the cafe,” he said. “But there will be activity that is possible and safe and that will be in excess of what’s happening in Melbourne because cases are very different.”

But in a blow to Victorians with family in NSW, Mr Andrews said the border may not open until well into the new year.

Shepparton, which is at the centre of a large outbreak, will not reopen with regional Victoria next week. Credit:Joe Armao

The number of communities in the border bubble would also be reduced from 11.59pm on Thursday.

Greater Bendigo, Greater Shepparton, City of Benalla, Buloke, Loddon, Yarriambiack and two NSW local government areas – Broken Hill and Edward River – will no longer be defined as cross-border communities. Residents will no longer be eligible for permits to enter Victoria or return from NSW.

Shepparton, which is at the centre of a large outbreak, will not be included in the release from lockdown next week.

Seven of the state’s new infections were in regional Victoria on Wednesday, including five in Shepparton where active cases reached 114.

One of those regional cases was in Seymour but linked to a workplace exposure in North Melbourne and the other is a household primary close contact of an existing case in Geelong.

Frustrations have also resurfaced at Mornington Peninsula, where community leaders have again requested that it be reclassified as regional rather than as part of metropolitan Melbourne.

Tourism North East chief executive Bess Nolan-Cook said she had hoped regional Victoria would be released from lockdown on Wednesday.

“There’s an enormous amount of disappointment,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel like there is a natural end point to living like this.”

The ski season in Victoria has been severely disrupted by lockdowns in a major blow to tourism operators.

Ms Nolan-Cook said tourism businesses in her region had lost three-quarters of their trade this year, particularly with the snow season so severely disrupted by lockdowns.

“In those moments when people have been able to travel the demand has been really strong, but essentially, we’ve lost a second snow season.”

Glenelg Shire mayor Anita Rank said she had wanted more from Mr Andrews’ announcement.

“We were hoping that regional and rural Victoria would be treated differently,” she said.

Cr Rank said she understood challenges remained in Shepparton and there could be new exposure sites in other parts of the state.

But she said the mental toll of lockdown was weighing heavily on many residents of regional Victoria.

“I think the approach that we’re all in lockdown is extremely detrimental to business,” Cr Rank said.

“We’re now seeing more people becoming affected mentally because of the continual lockdowns.”

But Warrnambool mayor Vicki Jellie supported a slow easing of restrictions in regional Victoria.

“If we could do it gradually and not go into a big lockdown again, wouldn’t that be great?” she said.

Greater Geelong mayor Stephanie Asher said she also supported an end to lockdown in regional Victoria next week.

In Shepparton there are still 6300 primary close contacts isolating, but authorities expect to clear many of them this week as day-13 tests fall due.

Mr Andrews said thousands of people remained in isolation in Shepparton but too many had been out in the community while infectious.

He said Shepparton would join the rest of regional Victoria in reopening as soon as possible. He insisted the greatest risk to regional Victoria was from NSW where there were 1116 new infections on Wednesday.

Business Wodonga chief executive Graham Jenkin said the plan to shrink the NSW border bubble was worrying.

“So many communities depend on cities the size of Albury-Wodonga for their health and shopping,” he said.

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