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Australia's virus hotspot sees 5 new cases, on track for Christmas opening

MELBOURNE, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Australia’s coronavirus hotspot Victoria recorded a single digit rise in new cases for the first time in three months on Monday and lifted some of the state’s tough restrictions, as it aims for near-normal conditions by Christmas.

Australia’s second-most populous state reported just five new cases and three deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, after daily cases had topped 700 in early August.

That pushed a key indicator, the rolling 14-day average, to 20.9 cases, tracking ahead of state government expectations.

“That is a very, very significant set of numbers. We are well ahead of schedule,” Premier Daniel Andrews told a daily press conference, anticipating a move to “COVID normal”, where most restrictions are lifted.

However, he urged people to continue to follow strict social distancing rules, despite the rigours of an eight-week lockdown so far to curb the second-wave outbreak.

“If people don’t do the right thing in the final few weeks of the lockdown, or if they lie about where they’ve been, there’s no COVID-normal Christmas,” he said.

Australia has reported just over 27,000 cases, and 875 deaths, with Victoria accounting for about 75% of infections and nearly 90% of all deaths. The numbers are still well below those in many other developed nations.

Andrews said on Sunday the state would accelerate an easing of some restrictions, announcing an immediate end to nightly curfews and potentially bringing forward the next round of looser restrictions by a week to Oct. 19.

However, a fine of nearly A$5,000 ($3,527) was introduced for anyone flouting restrictions that limit social gatherings to two households in an outside space, in a bid to prevent parties or other large events.

The latest easing meant 127,000 workers were allowed to go back to work on Monday, including at manufacturing and food processing industries, giving a boost to the country’s hard-hit economy.

Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, on Monday reported its second consecutive day without a COVID-19 case in more than three months, as did the northeastern state of Queensland.

Western Australia, which logged 7 infections on Sunday in workers on a bulk carrier moored off the iron ore export hub of Port Hedland, had yet to report its latest numbers.

The latest declines have renewed attention on the possibility of travel between Australia and New Zealand.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday told state broadcaster TVNZ it was “possible” that New Zealanders would be able to travel to at least some Australian regions before Christmas.

Plans for a travel ‘bubble’ between the countries lost pace after the resurgence of COVID-19 in Melbourne and a second wave of infections in Auckland.

$1 = 1.4176 Australian dollars Reporting by Melanie Burton; editing by Richard Pullin

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