Victoria and Tasmania strike deal to bring in 1,500 Pacific Island farm workers

Victoria and Tasmania have struck a deal to bring 1,500 seasonal farm workers to Australia from the Pacific Islands, as Victoria’s hard border comes down for all but one Sydney local government area.

On Friday the two states reached a “landmark” agreement aimed at helping Victorian farmers get enough workers to harvest their crops. Tasmania will quarantine 1,500 Pacific Islander farm workers who are at low risk of carrying Covid-19 in exchange for Victoria quarantining Tasmania’s 330 high-risk returned Australians.

The Victorian government and agricultural industry bodies will share the cost of quarantining the workers in Tasmania and will fly them to the mainland when their isolation ends. Tasmania will pay for the returned travellers quarantining in Victoria.

“This arrangement isn’t a silver bullet in addressing this season’s challenges, but it will ease some of the pressure being felt by farmers,” Victoria’s premier Daniel Andrews said.

Tasmania’s premier Peter Gutwein said it meant his state’s hotel quarantine system would “solely be able to focus on arrivals who represent a lower risk … and importantly our own requirements for seasonal workers will continue to remain the priority and will not be impacted by this agreement”.

Andrews also announced on Friday morning that all Sydney areas designated “red” on the state’s “traffic light” border system would become “orange”, except for the Cumberland council area.

“[This] means people will be able to travel to or from [orange zones] but they must test within 72 hours,” he said. “Then they’re free and clear once they get a negative test result. That’s very important.

“That will be great news, I know, for people who are wanting to come home. And of course those who for whatever reason need to travel into those communities.”

The change comes into effect at 6pm Friday and everyone entering Victoria from NSW must still complete a border permit form.

ACT has followed suit, allowing unrestricted entry for everyone but those who have spent time in Cumberland.

While internal borders are being relaxed, prime minister Scott Morrison confirmed that Australia would not raise the cap on the number of stranded Australians allowed back each week. National cabinet will reconsider the cap on 15 February.

NSW and the country recorded zero new local cases in the past 24 hours. Queensland recorded three cases in hotel quarantine; NSW recorded one.

Despite testing, numbers rose to more than 17,000 in NSW and health minister Brad Hazzard said authorities would continue to take a cautious approach and restrictions on gatherings in greater Sydney would not be eased before 26 January.

“We’ve all been burnt … [by] this virus, we’ve all had our hopes dashed, our hearts broken when we’ve got to a point where we’ve thought, ‘Oh, yep, this is doing really well,’ ” he told Sydney radio station 2GB.

NSW Health’s Dr Jeremy McAnulty reiterated the need for more testing: “Testing rates just aren’t high enough right now. High testing rates help reveal cases that would otherwise go undetected.”

Viral fragments were detected at a wastewater plant in Warriewood, which takes in a catchment of more than 160,000 people on the northern beaches, as well as Berala and Glenfield. Authorities suspect the fragments may be the result of recent local cases but urge people to be tested even if they have mild symptoms.

The greater Sydney areas that have changed from red to orange in Victoria’s traffic light system are Blacktown, Burwood, Canterbury Bay, Canterbury Bankstown, Fairfield, inner west, Parramatta and Strathfield.

Cumberland encompasses suburbs in western Sydney including parts of Auburn, Girraween, Greystanes and Merrylands.

“We’ll continue to review the remaining red zone and will downgrade it as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Victoria’s health minister Martin Foley said.

Andrews also announced that greater Brisbane and regional NSW – except Wollongong and Blue Mountains – will change from an orange zone to a green zone, meaning residents may to Victoria without being tested unless they develop symptoms.

“That is a very significant step,” he said. “It’s based on public health advice and will be welcome news, I’m sure, for many, many people who want to get home and have had a summer that has been somewhat disrupted, and in some cases more than that.”

Victoria recorded its 16th day with no locally acquired Covid-19 cases, with one case in hotel quarantine as part of the Australian Open bubble. Spanish Tennis player Paula Badosa took to Twitter late on Thursday night saying she had tested positive.

Given this Covid-free streak, Victoria has also relaxed its internal restrictions with the cap on private gatherings at the home increased from 15 to 30 from midnight.

“Any gathering needs to be Covid-safe, whether at your home or outside. We have to take these seriously,” Andrews said.

“We thank Victorians for embracing that. I know it’s been very inconvenient, it’s been a challenge for many people, but the reward is this long run of days without any community transmission.”

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