Thousands of workers will be able to return to industries including education and transport after becoming COVID-19 close contacts, as Victoria tries to mitigate the pandemic's impact on vital services.
The state recorded 37,169 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, with health authorities managing 221,726 total active cases.
Another 25 deaths were reported, while there are 953 patients in hospital, including 111 in intensive care of whom 29 require ventilation.
Premier Daniel Andrews said the list of workers exempt from isolating as close contacts will be broadened from midnight on Tuesday, to include those in emergency services, education, critical utilities, custodial facilities, transport and freight.
"Exempting them from isolation requirements is a common-sense way in which we can keep those services, those important parts of our society, as close to normal as possible," he said on Thursday.
Health care, food distribution, manufacturing, packaging and retail supermarket workers are currently exempt, while state government project workers will not be included in the list.
Workers must first notify their employer when they become a close contact and both parties must consent to the worker returning to the workplace.
They can then only return to work if "it is necessary for continuity of operations" and will not be allowed to go out and socialise outside work.
Exempt workers must wear a face mask at all times and undertake daily rapid antigen tests for five days, returning a negative result before attending work, with employers expected to provide RATs to employees.
Mr Andrews said Victoria is expecting to receive about two-and-a-half million RATs from the national stockpile and has ordered another 44 million.
The changes were welcomed by the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who said they will allow hard-hit businesses "to maintain viable levels of trade".
However, the state opposition wants the rules to be extended to all Victorian workers.
"We shouldn't be having rules for some and not others," deputy Liberal leader David Southwick said.
"If you're sick you stay home, if you're not sick you work. We've got to get people back to work, we've got to get businesses open, and we've got to get our lives back."
He also called for the premier to clarify where businesses are going to get their RAT supply from.
Liam Ganley, who owns three Melbourne hospitality venues including restaurant Angus & Bon, said he was losing staff every couple of days as they became close contacts or developed symptoms.
He said the businesses were headed into a "perfect storm" with no staff, restrictions in place, and deferred rents and payroll tax about to kick in.
"It doesn't compare at all to last year. It's survival-mode right now. Financially it's a lot worse," Mr Ganley said.
New rules requiring hospitality and entertainment venues to close indoor dancefloors also kicked in on Thursday, except for weddings. Hospitals and aged care facilities are imposing new restrictions on visitors.
Meanwhile, the number of Victorians over 18 who have received a booster vaccine has risen by two per cent, to 20 per cent, with more than 250,000 booster appointments available.
Mandatory booster arrangements now apply, requiring key workers currently eligible for a third dose to get it before February 12.
Australian Associated Press
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