One of the federal budget’s most controversial details is already being downplayed by the government, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Prime Minister Scott Morrison stressing that projections of Australia’s borders reopening are only “assumptions” and “not policy”.
The government is also tamping down the budget assumption that every Australian will get two doses of COVID vaccine by the end of the year, refusing to make a firm commitment on when that will occur.
“That is not a policy statement, nor is it a policy commitment of the government. It is a Treasury assumption,” Mr Morrison said in Parliament on Wednesday, of the vaccination assumptions.
It has seen Qantas again push back its plans to start operating international flights on a wider basis, with the airline forced to cancel tickets booked between October and December 2021. Business groups slammed the mid-2022 border reopening, claiming Australia will be “left behind” as a “lost kingdom”.
The treasury department prepared the budget with the assumption that “a population-wide vaccination program” would be in place “by the end of 2021”, and that international travellers would return to Australia “from mid-2022”.
Mr Frydenberg himself later explained the budget contains “an assumption that [Australians] will get two doses by that time”.
But on Wednesday, both the Treasurer and the PM were trying to downplay those dates, stressing the timing had been assumed by the treasury department for forecasting purposes, not locked in stone by the government.
“There are assumptions that go to the rollout. They are not policy settings,” Mr Morrison told the ABC.
Speaking before a National Press Club event, Mr Frydenberg echoed similar sentiments.
“Treasury make a number of assumptions in this budget. They are not policy decision, they are assumptions, about how we contain new outbreak, when the international borders open, when the vaccine is rolled out,” he said.
“They are merely assumptions, not policy decisions.”
However, Mr Frydenberg did dangle the possibility of that “mid-2022” timeframe being shifted – either forward, or back.
“If the medical advice is different to that, on either side of that decision, from mid-next year, then we would follow the medical advice,” he said.
On vaccinations, the government has come under fire for shifting deadlines and forecasts. Mr Morrison had previously promised four million vaccinations by late March, then early April, while health department projections outlined a target of six million vaccinations by May.
Australia, as of Tuesday, had administered 2.81 million doses.
In April, Mr Morrison said the government did not have “any plans to set any new targets for completing first doses”.
But on Tuesday, Mr Frydenberg told reporters in a budget press conference that the budget’s assumption was for every Australian who wants a vaccine, will get two shots by the end of 2021.
However, Mr Morrison appeared to back away from that on Wednesday, telling the Parliament’s Question Time that treasury’s assumption “makes no reference to second doses”.
The budget papers do not outline how many doses are assumed, but the treasurer himself did outline this two-dose goal.
Health Minister Greg Hunt later added that the government’s goal was “to ensure that the whole of population has the opportunity to access a vaccine this year”.
However, he pointed toward issues around timing and interval between vaccine doses, noting that Pfizer needed three weeks between shots, and that someone who gets their first shot in the final weeks of 2021 would get their second shot at the beginning of 2022.
Labor’s shadow health minister, Mark Butler, asked Mr Morrison if he could “guarantee that all Australians will be fully vaccinated against COVID by the end of this year”. The PM did not respond directly, instead noting that the government would “continue to rollout” vaccinations.
Australia's largest airline remains grounded 🛬@Qantas says in light of budget assumptions around international borders, it now hopes to have international flights back by December 2021 🌏
That's despite budget assumptions of no international travel until mid-2022 🚧 pic.twitter.com/5OFhjPnwYJ
— Jamie Travers (@JamieTravers) May 12, 2021
The speed and rate of vaccinations has been cited as a major factor in when and how borders can reopen. Mr Frydenberg told the National Press Club that “we cannot afford to take the risk right now to open our borders in a way that would compromise the health of Australians.”
It led to Qantas pushing back plans to restart international flights, outside of the New Zealand travel bubble. The airline had previously plannd to restart flights in October, which was the government’s previous projection for border reopenings.
“We remain optimistic that additional bubbles will open once Australia’s vaccine rollout is complete to countries who, by then, are in a similar position, but it’s difficult to predict which ones at this stage,” Qantas said in a statement.
The airline will continue repatriation and freight flights from overseas, while a “relatively low” number of passengers who booked tickets on international flights between October and October will be contacted.
The company says it will keep reviewing its plans in the lead up to December.
Flights to and from New Zealand are unaffected.