Victoria has experienced its deadliest day of the Covid pandemic this year, just a day before the state moves to the next stage of reopening.
The state recorded 1,923 new locally acquired cases and 25 deaths – the state’s highest single-day death toll of the current outbreak.
The sobering number comes despite more than 77% of Victorians now being fully vaccinated, and with the next round of restrictions to ease on Friday.
The deaths included a man in his 40s, a man and a woman in their 50s, two men in their 60s, four men and two women in their 70s, six men and four women in their 80s and four women in their 90s.
“It’s going to be a really difficult time for the family and friends of those 25 Victorians and we pass our deepest condolences to their loved ones in these challenging times,” acting chief health officer Ben Cowie said.
The state’s seven-day daily case number average has fallen to 1,756, from Wednesday’s average of 1800, with Cowie welcoming some “positive topline trends”, including a drop in Thursday numbers.
“But for the first time in three weeks, our Thursday figure is just under 2,000, which is good to see,” he said.
Cases continue to rise in regional areas, with another 38 new cases in Wodonga, where testing facilities are already under significant strain.
Cowie also announced that anyone ineligible to receive a Covid vaccine will need to produce a copy of their Australian Immunisation Register (AIR) medical exemption form as proof.
He said the changes were made after some GPs informed authorities there were some issues with the vaccination exemption process, as well as reflecting the pressure some faced to issue vaccine exemptions.
“We must remember that most people who are legitimately in this position would really love to get vaccinated and the rest of us getting vaccinated helps protect those who can’t.”
Cowie says the AIR form can be reproduced on smartphones, the way proof of vaccination currently works.
The change will come into force as restrictions are relaxed from Friday, when the state is scheduled to hit the 80% fully vaccinated mark.
Masks will no longer be mandatory outside, non-essential stores and gyms will reopen and travel between metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria will be allowed.
Meanwhile, there is growing criticism of the state government’s new pandemic laws , with the president of the Victorian Bar, Christopher Blanden QC describing the legislation as “appalling”.
“The bill confers draconian powers authorising virtually unlimited interference with the liberties of Victorians,” he said.
“It is the greatest challenge to the rule of law that this state has faced in decades.”
The new laws strip the chief health officer of the ability to declare a pandemic, instead handing that power to the premier.
The laws will also allow the premier to enforce public health orders for three months at a time, and expand the powers of the health minister.
In a statement, Blanden said the Victorian Bar was concerned that the new laws gave “unlimited power” to the health minister to “rule the state by decree, for an indefinite period, and without effective judicial or parliamentary oversight”.
“The bill also contains many other problematic provisions, including conferring very broad power on authorised officers without effective review or oversight, granting police power to enter premises without a warrant and abrogating privilege against self-incrimination,” Blanden said.
“The bill lacks the appropriate checks and balances to ensure the proper exercise of these powers.
But Andrews dismissed the criticism, saying that in urgent circumstances, such as a pandemic, the government needed to make “difficult” decisions.
“I think there are some people in this debate and some people in our parliament who find themselves singularly incapable of ever making a difficult decision,” he said.
“They are always wanting to play games and they’re always wanting to do what’s popular, and popularity, that’s not the goal here. Keeping people safe in a pandemic is what’s important.”