International students and skilled workers returned to Australia for the first time in 21 months, as the country eased some coronavirus restrictions, even as health authorities predicted a sharp increase in the number of Omicron cases.
Visa holders, who had been shut out of Australia since March 2020 when noncitizens were banned from entering the country, arrived in Melbourne and Sydney on Wednesday. On the same day, the island state of Tasmania fully opened its borders to other Australian states for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
The authorities have been loosening restrictions ahead of the holidays despite surging case numbers in the states of New South Wales and Victoria, as well as concerns that any outbreaks might overwhelm health systems in states that have been largely free from the coronavirus.
In New South Wales, an outbreak stemming from a nightclub event has swelled to over 200 cases since it was first detected six days ago, the authorities said on Wednesday. Nearly 700 people attended the 1970s prom night themed event on Dec. 8. Overall, the state reported 1,360 new cases on Wednesday, compared with 804 the previous day.
The state is seeing a “very substantial increase” in infections of both the Omicron and Delta variants, Brad Hazzard, the state’s health minister, said at a news conference. He warned that based on scientific modeling, the state could see 25,000 new coronavirus cases a day by the end of January.
At the same time, the state lifted numerous pandemic restrictions. Officials said masks were no longer mandatory in most settings and unvaccinated residents, who had been barred from restaurants, gyms and retail stores, would now have the same freedoms as vaccinated residents.
In the state of Victoria, 700 people are in quarantine after a resident who visited two nightclubs on Friday tested positive for the coronavirus. Still, that state also announced a similar easing of restrictions.
While most states eased restrictions, coronavirus-free Western Australia tightened its border rules, announcing it would bar residents of New South Wales from entering the state apart from in exceptional circumstances. The state will be the last to open to the rest of the country, with its hard border expected to lift on Feb. 5.