Vaccinated Australians to wait for post-Covid freedoms

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has unveiled a new roadmap to lead Australia out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has unveiled a new roadmap to lead Australia out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Fully vaccinated Australians could be forced to wait until next year to be exempt from lockdowns and border restrictions under the country's new pandemic exit strategy.

Australians stranded overseas have also been dealt another blow, with the national cabinet agreeing to slash the number of international arrivals to ease pressure on hotel quarantine amid the heightened threat of the highly infectious Delta variant.

A 50 per cent cut in the international arrivals cap is set to be in place until 2022 unless medical advice changes, although the federal government will attempt to fill some of the void by chartering more repatriation flights.

After a week dominated by vaccine confusion and city-wide lockdowns across the nation, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state and territory leaders on Friday agreed in-principle to a four-stage strategy to steer Australia to post-Covid normality.

Mr Morrison also announced plans to trial home quarantine as an alternative isolation option for returned travellers.

While home quarantine has been used in Canberra with diplomats and government officials throughout the pandemic, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has been cautious about extending the option to the wider population.

Under the new roadmap, restrictions would be lifted when yet-to-be-determined vaccination targets are hit, with the ultimate aim of reaching a point where coronavirus is treated like any other infectious disease in the community.

The plan will be finalised in the coming weeks.

Leading experts have welcomed the new roadmap, believing the lure of freedoms will help encourage Australians to get vaccinated.

Announcing the roadmap on Friday afternoon, Mr Morrison sold vaccination as the ticket to a future free of lockdowns, border closures and travel bans.

"A lot of people say 'Why should I get vaccinated? There's not much Covid around in Australia. I've got more chance of getting run over by a car than I have of catching Covid in this country,'" Mr Morrison said.

"And to that sense, we're prisoners of our own success in this.

"If you get vaccinated, you get to change how we live as a country. You get to change how you live in Australia."

The first - and current - phase is focused on suppressing the virus's spread in the community and rolling out the vaccine across the country.

In the second, so-called "post-vaccination" phase, inoculated residents would be able to avoid lockdowns and border closures, new quarantine arrangements would be brought in, restricted numbers of international students could return and previous flight caps would be restored.

Lockdowns would be imposed only in "extreme circumstances" to avoid mass hospital admissions and deaths.

That major step back to normality hinges on a proportion of the adult population being fully vaccinated.

The targets will be based on expert modelling, with Mr Morrison stressing that the thresholds would be a "scientific number, not a political number".

Just under 8 million doses had been administered as of Friday, with about 8.4 per cent of the eligible population now fully vaccinated.

With the government committed to offering a vaccine to any Australian who wants one by the end of 2021, Mr Morrison was hopeful the post-vaccination phase could be reached next year.

The third phase would result in lifting restrictions for vaccinated people travelling internationally, and extending the travel bubble to include countries such as Singapore, our Pacific neighbours and others that are deemed suitable. There would be no lockdowns.

It's expected caps on international students and humanitarian visa holders would also be increased.

The fourth and final phase would represent a return to near normality.

Some additional measures, such pre- and post-flight testing, would be undertaken, while parts of the population remained unvaccinated.

Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, said the four-step plan was "sensible" and would help spur vaccine uptake.

Professor Bennett was confident that if one-third of the eligible population could be vaccinated in two months' time, some restrictions could start to be eased.

Australian National University infectious diseases physician Peter Collignon said it was appropriate for health authorities to maintain the current approach of trying to stamp out the virus while vaccination coverage was so low.

Professor Collignon predicted that once between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of the population had been vaccinated, Australia could treat the virus differently.

This story Vaccinated Australians to wait for post-Covid freedoms first appeared on The Canberra Times.