SYDNEY - Singing and dancing will resume in nightclubs in Sydney and Melbourne from Friday, while most mandatory check-ins have been scrapped as officials lifted nearly all COVID-19 curbs in Australia's biggest cities amid a steady fall in hospital cases.

The relaxation in social distancing rules comes ahead of the full reopening of Australia's international borders on Monday after nearly two years, boosting business confidence battered by stop-start lockdowns.  

"We don't want restrictions in place for any longer than necessary and with hospitalisation and ICU rates trending downwards, now is the right time to make sensible changes," New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Thursday.

People admitted to hospitals due to the coronavirus in the country more than halved to around 2,600 after peaking at just under 5,400 more than three weeks ago.

Like most countries, Australia has been tackling the fast-moving Omicron variant that pushed its infections and hospital cases to record levels. Numbers have been on a downtrend in recent days with a booster rollout gathering pace.

New South Wales and Victoria, home to more than half of Australia's 25 million people, have been the worst hit by the Omicron wave and had reintroduced several tough curbs last month.

From Friday, indoor venues in Sydney and elsewhere in New South Wales can allow as many patrons as they want and QR check-ins will only be required for some higher risk venues. Masks will be needed only on public transport and indoors at airports and hospitals from Feb. 25.

Hotel quarantine for unvaccinated international travellers will be cut to seven days from two weeks in both states.

More than 23,000 new cases and 38 deaths were reported in the country by midday on Friday, with two states due to report later. Most of Australia's pandemic total of around 2.7 million confirmed cases have been detected since the emergence of the Omicron variant in late November. Total deaths stand at 4,836 since the pandemic began.


(Reporting by Renju Jose) ((; +61 29171 7126;))