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Health

Australia virus cases dive to five-week low

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia headed for its lowest daily increase in coronavirus infections in five weeks on Friday as the hotspot state of Victoria neared the midway point of lockdown, prompting the prime minister to hail “a week of increased hope”.

While the rest of Australia eases restrictions, the home state of a quarter of its population is in a six-week lockdown due to a second wave of virus infections.

Victoria reported 179 new cases in the past 24 hours, from 240 a day earlier and down from over 700 a day two weeks ago. The state reported nine deaths.

The country’s most populous state, neighbouring New South Wales, reported just one new case as an emergency cabinet of state and federal leaders discussed the prospect of relaxing closures of state borders that have been in place for months.

“Today’s meeting of national cabinet came during what I would describe as a week of increased hope,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a televised news conference.

“We’re doing better than most and many of the developed world in this situation.”

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said new case numbers in his state had fallen faster than he expected after the state imposed a nightly curfew and shuttered many businesses.

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“We are all pleased to see a ‘one’ in front of these additional case numbers,” Andrews said. “To be at this point shows that the strategy is working.”

With cases in Victoria declining and low or zero levels of infections elsewhere - some states had yet to report daily figures by mid-afternoon - business leaders have called for an easing of internal travel restrictions to alleviate the blow to business and the economy.

Many states have closed their borders to prevent the spread of infection, and Queensland’s premier said earlier this week its border won’t reopen to any states with cases of community transmission.

However, Prime Minister Morrison said Queensland had now agreed to relax a ban on interstate travel for people seeking health services. He said he would call for an agreed definition of a “hot spot” so the authorities and travellers could understand who was, or was not, allowed to travel interstate.

Qantas Airways Ltd QAN.AX said this week that state border closures were severely hampering a recovery in the domestic aviation market, while retail group Wesfarmers said the restrictions were causing "enormous hardship".

Other than the Victoria outbreak, Australia has largely avoided the high casualty numbers of many other nations with just under 24,500 infections and 472 deaths linked to the virus.

Reporting by Byron Kaye in Sydney and Melanie Burton in Melbourne; Additional reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Richard Pullin

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