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Australian PM wants internal borders open by Christmas, protests at virus restrictions grow

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s prime minister pressed states on Friday to reopen their borders by December and ease restrictions, as businesses and locked down households vented their frustration over deepening revenue and job losses.

FILE PHOTO: Fire Services Victoria personnel wearing hazmat suits meet in a restricted area outside a public housing tower, locked down in response to an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Melbourne, Australia, July 8, 2020. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country would look to bring more Australians home, raising the cap from 4,000 a week, and suggested an eventual travel bubble with New Zealand would boost tourism and help revive the economy, which has fallen into recession for the first time since 1991.

Seven of Australia’s eight state and territory leaders agreed to map out a path to open borders by December, by coming up with a definition for “hot spots” to manage travel around the country, Morrison said following a National Cabinet meeting.

He said he had told New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that Australia would also look to apply the same hot spot approach to New Zealand.

“In the absence of a vaccine, we may have to live this way for years,” Morrison told reporters.

Australia’s biggest state Western Australia, which has not had a local transmission for 129 days and has no social or business restrictions, rejected the plan to re-open its border until the eastern states contain the coronavirus.

Western Australia state premier Mark McGowan said the desert borders which separate his state would stay closed to save lives and protect the nation’s largest mining operations.

Australia’s early international border closures, lockdowns and social distancing restrictions has seen it record far fewer coronavirus infections and deaths than other nations. Nationally there have been around 26,100 infections and 737 deaths.

Australia’s tourism industry welcomed the push to reopen internal borders in time for summer holidays and Christmas.

“Our industry remains on its knees in the fight of its life and has each month been losing thousands of jobs and $6 billion in activity from the forced shutdown of domestic travel alone,” said Margy Osmond, chief executive of the Tourism and Transport Forum.

Victoria, the second-most populous state, is the epicentre of Australia’s latest wave of cases, mainly in the state capital Melbourne. Daily new infections have dropped to double digits this week thanks to a strict lockdown imposed on Aug 2.

Melbourne is nearing the end of the six-week lockdown which includes a night time curfew, an hour a day of outdoor exercise and travel limits to within 5 km (3 miles) of home. Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews is due to outline plans on Sunday for easing restrictions.

Businesses have been calling for the economy to reopen but Andrews does not want to lift restrictions quickly and then be forced to shut down again with another wave of infections.

“There is simply no alternative but to ease out of these restrictions in a safe and steady way,” Andrews told reporters.

The strict lockdown has led to calls for protests this weekend, which police have aggressively tried to shut down. Video footage of police seeking to detain a woman and a man for inciting people to protest have gone viral on social media.

James Bartolo, who calls himself the leader of the Conscious Truth Network, on Friday posted a video of police entering his house with a battering ram after he refused to open the door. He had earlier posted videos saying he was going to join an anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne on Saturday.

Police confirmed a 27-year-old man had been arrested and charged with incitement, possession of prohibited weapons and two counts of resisting police.

On Thursday, police came under fire for arresting and handcuffing a pregnant, pyjama-clad woman at her home for promoting an anti-lockdown protest in the regional town of Ballarat.

Victoria reported a record 59 deaths on Friday, the highest daily total for the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but that included 50 previously unrecorded fatalities in aged care homes in July and August. It also reported 81 new cases, taking the state’s total infections to 19,415.

Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Colin Packham, Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Jane Wardell and Michael Perry