The federal government has finally outlined its COVID-19 response plan, announcing four phases for its new approach that will reduce international arrival numbers by 50% in phase 1 and fewer lockdown and border restrictions once most of the Australian population has been vaccinated by stage 2.
Prime minister Scott Morrison said on Friday that the plan was agreed to at the 45th national cabinet meeting with state and territory leaders ‘getting into the room and getting it done’.
“We have agreed a new deal for Australians on the pathway out of COVID-19,” the PM said.
“A pathway from a pre-vaccination period, which is focused on the suppression of the virus on community transmission cases, to one that sees us manage COVID-19 as an infectious disease like any other in our community.”
“Our mindset on COVID-19 has to change when we move from pre-vaccination, to post vaccination,” Morrison added.
The PM announced that caps on the number of international arrivals will be reduced by July 14 to 50% of the current rate. The decision was a precautionary measure, he said, to deal with the more infectious COVID-19 Delta strain, and would be revised once local vaccination rates had improved.
“While the reduction of those caps will certainly, right across the system, obviously take some pressure off […] that alone does not provide any failsafe regarding any potential breaches,” Morrison said.
“Because of the particular virulence of the Delta strain, it is believed that is a prudent action while we remain in this suppression phase of the virus.”
As a result of the revised number of returning travellers allowed back in Australia, at least until August when the decision will be reviewed, the commonwealth said it would increase the number of commercial repatriation flights and quarantine travellers at the Howard Springs quarantine facility.
Phase 1 of the government’s COVID-19 plan will also include a trial of alternative arrangements to hotel quarantine. South Australia has agreed to trial an arrangement where vaccinated returned travellers can undergo a seven day home quarantine period instead of two weeks in a state-approved hotel quarantine facility.
The federal government will also introduce a new vaccination certificate, supported using digital products like Apple wallet, by the end of July. The certificate will be used for digital identification purposes at the Australian border, the PM said.
Phase 2 will be reached once most of the Australian population has been fully vaccinated against the virus, Morrison said, and mean that lockdowns and other restrictions would only be ordered ‘in extreme circumstances’. This phase would also see inbound passenger numbers restored for unvaccinated travellers, with a higher cap for returning travellers who have been inoculated.
It is the first time the government has given some outline of what settings would need to be in place before Australia can start welcoming back international students and economic visa holders subject to quarantine availability.
According to the prime minister, phase 3 of the plan would mean Australia treated COVID-19 like any other type of infectious disease. It would also mean lifting all outbound travel restrictions for vaccinated citizens, and an expanded travel bubble for countries in The Pacific, and Singapore.
Phase 4 of the National Cabinet plan would signal a complete return to normal circumstances with pre- and post-flight testing for those international travellers who land in Australia.
Morrison told a press pack that any thresholds or targets to be achieved before Australia could move between phases (and achieve a nationally recognised level of herd immunity) would be determined by health experts. He also said the decision to move from one phase to another would not be made lightly.
“The thresholds that need to be set are not going to be set by political deals and decisions,” Morrison said.
“Professor Kelly is doing the work with the Doherty Institute to answer that question (of targets and thresholds). It won’t be based on people’s opinions or their politics, it will be based on the scientific evidence […] that when you hit that mark with a high level of confidence that you can move into this next phase.”
The government has asked health experts to undertake modelling to understand just what percentage of the Australian population would need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to safely move between each phase of its plan.
The prime minister issued a statement on Friday afternoon, which said the National Cabinet’s in-principle agreement was for vaccination thresholds to be based on the scientific advice of the COVID-19 Risk Analysis and Response Task Force.
The taskforce group will also be responsible for finalising the plan announced today.
Chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly urged any person feeling unwell to resist the temptation of ‘soldiering on’ at work, recommending they choose to stay away from their workplace and get tested.
He also encouraged any person who could get a COVID-19 vaccine to seek out the jab.
“If you are eligible for a vaccine, go and get it,” Kelly said.
“For those of you that are hesitant, go and talk to your GP about the vaccine, and line up and go and get that vaccine.”
Commenting on the performance of the federal government’s response to COVID-19 earlier this week (and before today’s announcement), strategic health policy consultant Bill Bowtell said the deafening silence on targets (be they vaccination targets or when the government planned on lifting its international border restrictions) was abysmal.
“If [the federal government] doesn’t want to set KPIs and targets, now is the time to rate them and say, ‘Well, you’ve done your best – if that’s the best, it’s not good enough.’ Really, we need people who have a clue,” Bowtell said.
“[Targets] have got to be in the hands of the state premiers and chief ministers because as a collective group, I think they have done much better. They should take over all aspects of the response to this.”
So, by what date will Fed govt set a date to set a date to announce how many Australians will be fully vaccinated against #covid? When will 50% of all Australians be fully (not partially) vaccinated? 80%? What are the irrevocable commitments? @Politics_SMHAGE @TheTodayShow
— Bill Bowtell AO (@billbowtell) July 2, 2021
Responsibility for vaccine procurement, supply and distribution and all quarantine arrangements should be handled by the states, Bowtell added.
“The federal government can fund all of that and then get out of the way,” he said, suggesting the states were fare more competent in delivering the infrastructure and administrative needs of the nation’s COVID-19 response.
“What the federal government can also fund is a return to JobKeeper because this is not going to go away easily.
“They should ensure that when these things hit, there’s adequate support and compensation for the businesses who have been clobbered, and for the people who have lost their jobs,” Bowtell said.
“It’s regrettable, but true – it never had to come to this. But here we are because of the decisions taken by the federal government of Australia.”
The National Cabinet is due to reconvene next week on 9 July.