Australia's Queensland votes in COVID-dominated race, Melbourne eases lockdown

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Voters in Australia’s Queensland state went to the polls on Saturday in an election overshadowed by COVID-19, with the Labor government expected to retain power for taking strict measures that have put it at odds with the national government.

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“Today’s a really important day and it’s about Queenslanders making a choice,” Annastacia Palaszczuk, premier of the country’s third-most populous state, told local media after casting her vote.

“It’s about who they want to be the premier to actually lead the state.”

Palaszczuk has adopted stringent anti-virus controls, including the closure of state borders, causing friction with Prime Minister Scott Morrison who wants internal borders open to boost an economic recovery.

Morrison, leader of the centre-right Liberal Party, on Saturday backed Palaszczuk’s opponent Deb Frecklington, leader of the Liberal National Party of Queensland.

“Australia needs Queensland to return to the powerhouse state it once was,” Morrison said in a video message on Facebook.

Results are expected late on Saturday.

At the same time, residents in Australia’s second-largest city, Melbourne, on Saturday enjoyed their first weekend of relative freedom after an almost four-month lockdown, as coronavirus case numbers continued to dwindle.

As Melburnians have flocked to parks, tennis courts, restaurants and shops, officials reported no new COVID-19 cases in Victoria state and no deaths, saying that further tests on an earlier reported case confirmed it was not an infection.

That compares to an average daily new cases of around 700 in July and early August, which made it Australia’s pandemic hotspot. “We need to enjoy our lives after three months of really constrained activity,” Victoria Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told a news conference on Sunday.

Some travel restrictions, however, remain and venues including libraries and cinemas remain closed in Melbourne, the state capital. Officials are expected to announce a further easing of restrictions from Nov. 9.

Australia has fared much better than many countries in managing the pandemic, recording just over 27,500 cases and 907 deaths since the start of the year. As of Friday, there were just under 200 active cases.

The government announced on Saturday it would spend A$500 million ($350 million) over the next three years to help Pacific and Southeast Asian countries roll out vaccination programs to against COVID-19.

The government has agreements with Britain’s AstraZeneca Plc AZN.L and Australia’s University of Queensland for potential vaccines and has pledged free immunisation to all Australians and donations to regional partners.

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