By Renju Jose and Sonali Paul
SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia's Victoria state on Wednesday said the daily rise in infections in its coronavirus hot spot of Melbourne has eased further, putting it on course to relax an extended hard lockdown in the city by the end of the month.
Average cases over the last two weeks in Melbourne, the state's largest city, fell below 50, health authorities said, the benchmark the state set to start easing curbs.
Construction sites, manufacturing plants, warehouses and childcare facilities can reopen, allowing more than 100,000 workers to return to their jobs, if the 14-day rolling average is under 50 cases as of Sept. 28.
The state has set a much tougher target of a 14-day average of five cases for lifting a nightly curfew, allowing people out of home for more than two hours a day, and reopening more businesses in Melbourne from Oct 26.
"We have to see this through. We absolutely do. Because if we get ourselves in a situation where frustration gets the better of us...then we can open, but we won't stay open for very long," Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters.
Victoria, Australia's second-most populous state, on Wednesday reported eight deaths from COVID-19 and 42 new cases, down from daily case highs above 700 in early August. With the drop in cases, the state will lift most restrictions outside Melbourne later on Wednesday.
The stringent curbs in Melbourne have led to three lawsuits against the state, including two class actions blaming the outbreak of Victoria's second wave of infections on the government's poor management of hotel quarantine.
An epidemiologist last month told a judicial inquiry into Victoria's hotel quarantine that nearly all of the state's second wave of cases could be traced back to returned travellers in two hotels in May and June.
Lawyer Tony Carbone has filed a class action on behalf of workers who lost jobs, people who have suffered mentally and those who contracted COVID-19 in Melbourne's second lockdown.
"The class of people we are representing find themselves in the predicament they're in because of the government's mishandling of the returned travellers and bungled hotel quarantine programme," said Carbone.
Australia has reported nearly 26,800 coronavirus cases and 824 deaths, with Victoria accounting for the bulk of both.
Most of the country's cases have been traced back to returned travellers. Daily limits have been imposed on the number allowed to return from overseas and arrivals must quarantine in a hotel for 14 days.
However with 25,000 Australians stranded overseas, the national government on Wednesday pressed states to raise caps and open up regional airports to international flights, so a further 2,000 a week could return, raising the weekly total to 6,000.
"I want to make sure that more Australians can return home. There are some heart-wrenching stories," Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said.
In a further hit due to the tight borders, Australian National University in Canberra said it needed to axe 215 jobs on top of 250 already cut to reduce costs, and the University of New South Wales said it would have to shed 256 jobs, taking it to a total of 493 cuts this year.
The country's universities depend heavily fee-paying international students, many of whom have been unable to enter Australia since March.
(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Editing by Tom Hogue and Michael Perry)