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Victoria COVID LIVE updates: State records just one new local case; restrictions to ease with 25km radius limit on travel

Pregnant women are now being encouraged to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, after previous advice said they should wait until after pregnancy for their shot if they were not at high risk of coming into contact with the virus or developing more severe illness.

In a statement published on Wednesday, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) and national vaccine advisory group ATAGI said they had revised their recommendation on the basis of data collected in vaccine recipients abroad.

The two organisations are now recommending that pregnant women be offered the Pfizer vaccine at any stage of their pregnancy.

“This is because the risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 is significantly higher for pregnant women and their unborn baby,” they said in a statement, although the “large majority” will only experience mild illness.

“Global surveillance data from large numbers of pregnant women have not identified any significant safety concerns with mRNA COVID-19 vaccines given at any stage of pregnancy,” they added.

“Furthermore, there is also evidence of antibody in cord blood and breast milk, which may offer protection to infants through passive immunity.”

The organisations encouraged pregnant women to discuss the timing of their vaccination with a health professional.

“Women who are trying to become pregnant do not need to delay vaccination or avoid becoming pregnant after vaccination,” they said.

The advice for women who are breastfeeding – that it is safe to receive a vaccine during this time – remains unchanged.

While many Victorians – in both metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria – are breathing sighs of relief at the imminent easing of lockdown restrictions at 11.59pm tomorrow, there are others who may fear the end of it.

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a new disaster payment for people who lost work hours during coronavirus lockdowns. However, the payments are dependent on whether the workers live in a designated “hotspot”.

Acting Premier James Merlino said he suspected the payments would end tomorrow night, but that it was a matter for the federal government.

“In terms of the federal government’s identification of hotspots and the income support that is provided, that is based on the advice of the federal [Chief Medical Officer]. Paul Kelly would provide advice to the federal government as to where a hotspot is defined,” Mr Merlino said.

“My understanding is that following the announcements … that come into effect from 11.59pm Thursday, Melbourne would no longer be defined as a hotspot. That is my understanding. To get confirmation of that you should go to the federal government.”

We’ll bring you the federal response when we have it.

The state government today announced an extra $2000 top-up payment would be available to businesses in metropolitan Melbourne that are closed due to extended restrictions. They include gyms, dance schools and yoga studios, and takes the total amount available to eligible businesses to $7000.

The Age is publishing this live blog free for all readers as a public service – all Victorians need access to reliable, factual information about the COVID-19 outbreak and the impact of lockdown.

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Ambulance staff and police officers will be prioritised for their coronavirus jabs, Health Minister Martin Foley said at Victoria’s late-morning press conference.

“Today marks the start of the Ambulance Victoria first responders blitz in the state’s walk-up and mass vaccination centres,” he said.

“We’re working closely with the workforce members of … Ambulance Victoria to make sure that we lift those rates.”

Mr Foley said the vaccination of police officers was a little different, given many of them had been vaccinated in order to work in the state’s hotel quarantine program.

“Police are a little bit different because so many of them are rotating through the hotel quarantine system as a key part of the security and workforce. There are a number, a significant number, [that] are already fully vaccinated through that system,” he said.

“But we’re looking to how the next wave of priority groups can start to finalise those 1A and 1B groups particularly amongst first responders.“

He said health teams were keen to get emergency service workers “done and dusted” quickly.

“We’re trying to make sure that within the constraints of the supply that we have that we balance the huge demand we’re seeing from Victorians … with the need to get those priority groups done and dusted as quickly as we possibly can,” he said.

The Victorian government has announced that COVID-19 restrictions will ease from 11.59pm on Thursday.

Acting Premier James Merlino has announced that all schools will return to on-site learning from Friday. Melburnians will be free to leave home for any reason, but must stay within 25 kilometres of their home, unless they are travelling for work, education, care or to get a vaccine.

Masks will not be required outdoors unless you can’t socially distance, but must still be worn indoors.

Cafes and restaurants will reopen in Melbourne, for seated service, with a maximum of 100 people, 50 indoors.

Retail can also reopen with density limits. Keep updated on the latest rules and restrictions here.

Acting Premier James Merlino, who is also responsible for the education portfolio, has reiterated his comments that government schools will reopen to all students on Friday.

“All students will be back at school on Friday, in terms of the government system. There is no pupil-free day on Friday, students will be back at school.

“In terms of our Catholic and independent schools in Victoria, that will be a matter for them.”

Mr Merlino also acknowledged that lockdowns were particularly hard on schoolchildren and their parents.

“Moving to remote learning is a last resort, absolutely is a last resort and for the last couple of weeks, our schools have been open for vulnerable children and for children of authorised workers.

“We are in a position, based on public health advice, to have had our Year 11s and 12s back at school last Friday. I am pleased, as Education Minister and a parent, that on Friday, all children will be back at school.”

Acting Premier James Merlino said he was hopeful the state government could ease restrictions further next week.

“The expectation is that from Thursday night next week, we’ll be in a position where we can bring Melbourne and regional Victoria much closer together,” he said.

“That would mean the travel restrictions in terms of the 25 kilometre [limit], that would go.

“There’ll be … easing of restrictions for venues, [and] community sport competition will resume.”

He said the government was trying to provide advanced notice to businesses.

“This is about making sure that we provide notice for people in terms of what the easing of restrictions will mean,” he said.

He said visitors to nursing homes remain restricted.

Wedding guest lists will remain restricted because marriage celebrations had the potential to be sites of “significant transmission”, says Professor Sutton.

“Weddings have been a source of significant transmission and they remain a risk of clusters occurring there,” he said.

In metropolitan Melbourne, weddings will be restricted to 10 people while 50 people can attend a funeral. Those numbers will be higher in regional Victoria: weddings can have up to 20 people while 75 can attend a funeral.

Professor Sutton said numbers at funerals were being treated differently because there was usually a greater sense of urgency around burying a loved one.

“You can’t defer a funeral,” he said. “There is close interaction at weddings, for human behavioural reasons that are entirely understandable, but that constraint needs to be in place with those considerations in mind,” he said.

“It’s tough for anyone who’s planning a wedding. There are people who’ve cancelled multiple times because we never know how new cases might emerge.

“It’s an awfully tough thing to call.”

Acting Premier James Merlino said there was no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling lockdowns have had a significant effect on the mental health of Victorians.

Mr Merlino, who is also the minister for mental health, said “the whole pandemic has had an impact on mental health”.

“I’ve been really upfront about that,” he said.

“We delivered the biggest investment in mental health that this nation has ever seen: $3.8 billion.

“I am keeping, as Mental Health Minister, a very close eye on … other indicators throughout health services.”

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said restrictions could not be further eased due to the risk of undetected cases in the community.

“It’s [the risk of] potentially undetected cases out there,” Professor Sutton said.

“We’ve had a number of cases where acquisition isn’t absolutely clear, so we just need to run that down as much as possible and that means testing, especially across metro Melbourne.

“It really is anyone who’s out there at the moment with symptoms who’s not getting tested.”

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