"When it is like the flu, we should treat it like the flu. And that means no lockdowns," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, signalling what life might be like in a COVID-vaccinated country.
We're nowhere near that stage yet, but the above quote from the PM represents the ambitions set out in today's National Cabinet between federal, state and territory governments, putting the wheels in motion for a four-phase pathway towards a 'new normal' - suppression, post-vaccination, consolidation and returning to normality.
- Inbound international arrival caps temporarily cut by 50 per cent
- Vaccination benchmark to be determined through scientific modelling
- Home quarantine trials considered for SA
- Digital vaccination certificate system in development
- Taskforce to define and propose pathway details this month
Following NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian's call for an 80 per cent benchmark of COVID-19 vaccination before international borders are reopened, the National Cabinet has agreed to set a specific percentage for a 'post-vaccination' phase based on modelling that is underway.
"This will be a scientific number. It won't be a political number, it won't be an arbitrary number," the PM said.
That phase, which is the second on this pathway, may give rise to eased restrictions for vaccinated residents, a condition that lockdowns only be used in extreme circumstances to prevent escalating hospitalization and fatality, and a return to higher inbound passenger caps.
The final details are yet to be determined by the COVID-19 Risk Analysis Response Taskforce, which Scott Morrison explained would be hashed out over the course of this month.
But for now, given the increased risks of the Delta strain of the virus, the National Cabinet has agreed to temporarily reduce passenger arrivals into Australia by 50 per cent, although the Federal Government plans to up the ante on international repatriations into the National Resilience Facility at Howard Springs, NT.
"Simply reducing the caps doesn't necessarily provide a failsafe, but because of the particular virulency of the Delta stain, it is believed that that is a prudent action while we remain in the suppression phase of the virus," he said.
"We will also extend the international freight subsidy scheme to ensure maintenance of the central freight supply lines by air impacted by the reduction of commercial caps at international airports."
Currently we are in what's been described as the 'suppression' phase of 'vaccinate, prepare and pilot'. This includes trials for alternative quarantine options such as home quarantine for returning vaccinated travellers.
"South Australia has indicated that they will be seeking to work with the Commonwealth having the necessary digital applications to support that," he said.
"It will be a very small-scale trial, but we want to make sure that before it goes to any scaled-up use that we work through that. And this will be a very transparent exercise with other states and territories.
"We will continue to expand the commercial trials for limited entry of student [and] economic visa holders."
Building on the Medicare vaccination certificate that is automatically generated, the PM reiterated he expected a digital system to be available by the end of the month, for example in Apple wallets and the like.
"We will put in place a digital vaccination authentication at border that we will prepare now," he said.
"And there will be a further review of the national hotel quarantine network to ensure that the standards of infection control procedures and the like are being adhered to."
After these two phases, the plan is for Australia to move into a much more ambitious third phase of consolidation, whereby "the hospitalisation and fatality rates that you'd see from COVID-19 would be like the flu, or, arguably better, and we're already seeing evidence of that in other jurisdictions that have higher levels of vaccination".
"When it is like the flu, we should treat it like the flu. And that means no lockdowns," the PM said.
At that stage it is possible we will see abolished caps on returning vaccinated travellers, and vaccinated residents would be exempt from all domestic restrictions. At that point, the PM expects "very high" caps on student, economic and humanitarian visa holders.
Outbound travel would thus be unrestricted for vaccinated people, and in that phase three period the Federal Government would hope to extend the travel bubble that exists with New Zealand to other candidate countries such as Singapore and some Pacific nations.
"Moving into the consolidation phase will be based on a further benchmark determined by that modelling process," he said.
The final phase, described by Morrison as the "penultimate phase to moving completely back to normal", could potentially include uncapped inbound arrivals for all vaccinated people without quarantine, as well as uncapped arrivals of non-vaccinated travel subject to pre-flight and on-arrival testing.
"So you may still have at that point unvaccinated people coming to Australia at that final phase - if they are picked up on testing...they'd of course go into quarantine which would be common sense," the PM said.
He concluded what the pathway means is that once Australia gets vaccinated, we will be able to live differently.
"Winning in the post-vaccination phase looks very different to winning in the phase we're in now," he said.
"Winning now means we suppress the virus as best as we can, which means that from time to time - such as we're experiencing in New South Wales - we have to go through these experiences. It's regrettable, and I have every confidence having heard further from the NSW Premier today that they continue to get on top of that.
"We will continue to fight on in this period and we'll continue to do everything we possibly can to vaccinate the population as fast as possible, and I think the performance in the most recent June month indicates just how much we've been able to ramp up - a million doses in eight days, 3.5 million doses or thereabouts in one month. We keep that pace up and we'll get this done Australia."
Updated at 1:26pm AEST on 2 July 2021.
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