By: Nick Bonyhady
National cabinet has agreed on a pathway for Australia to move from trying to suppress COVID-19 to living with the disease once enough of the population is vaccinated, but in the short term, there will be a 50 per cent reduction in passengers arriving in the country.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the announcement on Friday morning, saying a cut in the passenger cap is intended to relieve pressure on the hotel quarantine system, but came with the promise of a trial of home quarantine for vaccinated travellers. The new passenger caps will come into effect by 14 July, but some states may move sooner.
Mr Morrison also announced a four-phase pathway to transition Australia from its first phase of virus suppression to a fourth phase of life as it was pre-pandemic, with each new phase triggered when Australia hits a threshold of vaccinated people.
“The good news I have for Australians who are subject to restrictions today is we have agreed a new deal for Australians on the pathway out of COVID-19,” Mr Morrison said.
It will also extend freight subsidies to ensure that supplies, such as medicines and vaccines, continue to come into Australia by air.
The Prime Minister also said Australia will trial and pilot a home quarantine scheme, which could also be shorter than the current two week quarantine time.
“The work that we have already done … shows that a vaccinated person doing quarantine for seven days is stronger than an unvaccinated person doing quarantine for 14 days,” he said.
The current phase, phase one, is about vaccinating, preparing and planning, he said. The pathway will transition Australia from its current pre-vaccination settings, focusing on suppression of community transmission, to post-vaccination settings “focused on prevention of serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality and the public health management of other infectious diseases”.
While still in the first stage, the reduction in passenger caps is intended to take pressure off the hotel quarantine system as it is tested by the more contagious Delta strain of the coronavirus. However, the Commonwealth will facilitate increased repatriation flights to Darwin for quarantine at Howard Springs while the reduction is in place, the Prime Minister said.
South Australia is likely to be the first state to trial the program, Mr Morrison said. It will happen on a small scale and other states and territories may follow.
The traveller cap will return to the current level in phase two, with even larger caps for vaccinated travellers, Mr Morrison said.
The second phase of the roadmap out of the coronavirus, as agreed by all the state and territory leaders, will kick in when we get to a specific target of vaccinations, which the Prime Minister has not specified but said will be based on “scientific evidence”.
In that phase, lockdowns will only be used in extreme circumstances and vaccinated people will have eased restrictions when lockdowns or border closures occur.
More students and economic visitors will be allowed in then as well, he said.
The third phase will be the consolidation phase and will mean the virus will be managed like any other infectious disease.
“That basically means that the hospitalisation and fatality rates that you would see from COVID-19 would be like the flu,” Mr Morrison said.
Vaccinated people will be able to travel abroad at will at that point, he said.
Mr Morrison defended the speed of the vaccine program in outlining a pathway based on vaccination numbers.
“I think the performance in the most recent June month indicates how much we’ve been able to ramp up, 1 million doses in eight days. Three and a half million doses in one month. We keep the pace up and we’ll get this done,” he said.
“We get this done, Australia, and you can see what is on the other side. We made it very clear today what’s on the other side. You get vaccinated, and we get there, and this all changes.
“A new deal for Australians today, a new deal to get Australians to the other side,” Mr Morrison says.
He said more details on the phases will be coming from a task force headed by the boss of the Prime Minister’s department, Phil Gaetjens. National Cabinet will make the final call on each of the steps, which Mr Morrison anticipates will be done over the next month.
The Prime Minister didn’t commit to any firm dates or targets for the four-phase reopening plan, saying it will depend on the modelling from coronavirus experts on what level of vaccination is necessary to keep serious illness and fatality rates very low, and the progress of the vaccine rollout in hitting those levels.
“I hope we’re living in that second phase next year,” Mr Morrison said. Asked whether that means we’ll see the 50 per cent arrival cap cut last until next year, he said “that’s what this agreement says today”.
“If medical advice changes between now and then, if medical advice suggests that we can alter that, then of course the national cabinet has always been receptive to that advice and we’ll continue to monitor that.”
What will new cap arrangements look like state by state?
Sydney will go from 3010 passengers per week to 1505
Perth 530 to 265
Adelaide 530 to 265
Melbourne 1000 to 500
Brisbane 1000 (plus 300 surge capacity) to 500 (plus 150 surge capacity)
The current total of 6070 will reduce to 3035