Australia’s plan to reopen from COVID is in peril of being derailed by yet another interstate stoush, with Scott Morrison and state leaders again at loggerheads about when lockdowns and border closures should end.
Labor governments in Queensland and Western Australia – which have the nation’s lowest vaccine rates – have been accused of “crabwalking away” from the Doherty Institute modelling they agreed to only weeks ago.
Both states have given no guarantee they’ll reopen their borders to NSW, even after very high vaccination rates.
“If not at 70 per cent and 80 per cent, then when?” an exasperated Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, after the latest round of pushback on the reopening plan.
“We must make that move.”
The ugly state-vs-federal battle, yet again playing out in public via nationally televised press conferences, centres on Doherty Institute modelling. That scientific analysis lays out that Australia can gradually lift COVID rules and end lockdowns when vaccination rates hit 70, then 80, per cent of the eligible population aged over 16.
However, critics have also noted there are no targets for vaccinating children under 16, who make up large percentages of infections in Sydney, Melbourne and the ACT.
At the weekend, Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles refused to commit to reopening his state’s border with NSW after the Doherty milestones were reached, claiming the modelling didn’t take into account a large outbreak like that Sydney is fighting.
“It will depend on the situation here and the situation in NSW,” Mr Miles said.
“We’re signed up and committed to the plan that national cabinet endorsed but that was a plan that was endorsed before the NSW outbreak.”
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said she was “very disappointed” with those comments, claiming it represented Queensland trying to “crabwalk away from an agreement they made so recently”.
“It indicates Steven Miles and potentially others in the government in Queensland are terribly out of touch with what people think on the ground,” Ms Andrews told The New Daily at a Canberra press conference on Monday.
“The Queensland government did sign onto the plan to reopen Australia, and I think they need to stop endlessly trying to re-prosecute their own personal views and just get on with the job.”
She claimed Mr Miles’ comments were “just wasting time” and that it was “time to get on with it”. Her comments were just one plank of a coordinated federal response to wavering on the reopening plan, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also warning the Commonwealth wouldn’t continue providing financial assistance to states in lockdown, once the vaccine milestones were reached, and that states “need to adhere” to the reopening plan.
Federal chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said the modelling didn’t need updating based on NSW’s current caseload, but has spoken with Doherty experts about what implications that might have for reopening. Senior federal government sources told The New Daily they believed the final conclusions and reopening targets would be “unchanged”, no matter the number of cases.
In Parliament’s Question Time on Monday, Mr Morrison said he had received verbal briefings from Doherty experts about such a scenario, but declined to make those details public.
On Monday, WA Premier Mark McGowan also reserved his right to keep instituting lockdowns and border closures.
“We don’t need rash decision-making on the basis of what is happening in NSW,” he said.
“There is an Australia outside of NSW. Just because the NSW government has made a mess of it doesn’t mean the rest of us should suffer.”
The latest fracturing on the Doherty modelling prompted a frustrated reply from Mr Morrison, who told his own press conference that premiers had already signed up it.
“The national plan we have developed and agreed is our pathway to living with this virus. That is our goal, to live with this virus, not to live in fear of it,” he said.
“Once you get to 70 per cent of your country that is eligible for the vaccine and 80 per cent, the plan sets out that we have to move forward. We cannot hold back.”
Queensland and WA have, by far, the lowest vaccination rates in the country, and well below the national average.
In NSW and the ACT, 59 and 59.2 per cent of people respectively have received a first dose, while second-dose rates are at 31.5 and 36.2 per cent.
In contrast, Queensland first-dose rate is only 46.6 per cent, and just 27.9 per cent have a second dose. In WA, those rates are 45.9 and 27.2 per cent.
Mr Morrison claimed there would be people trying to “undermine confidence” in the reopening plan, but declined to name anyone.
“Our goal must be to help people overcome those fears and not give in to them. Because this cannot go on forever, this is not a sustainable way to live in this country, without those freedoms that we all cherish,” he said.
Mr Morrison redoubled his newly-sharpened rhetoric on Australians needing to be prepared for rising case numbers, once vaccination rates are high and COVID restrictions are relaxed. The Doherty modelling sets out that “low-level” rules like crowd limits and capacity densities will remain into the future.
“We must ensure that our public health systems are ready for the increase in the number of cases that will occur,” the PM said.
“We must adjust our mindset. Cases will not be the issue once we get above 70 per cent. Dealing with serious illness, hospitalisation, ICU capabilities, our ability to respond in those circumstances, that will be our goal. And we will live with this virus as we live with other infectious diseases.”
Mr Morrison has previously called for Australians to come out from “under the Doona” of COVID rules. On Monday, he said the nation could not “stay in the cave forever”.
“This groundhog day has to end, and it will end when we start getting to 70 per cent and 80 per cent,” he said.
When asked if Australians who chose not to be vaccinated were “on their own”, Mr Morrison said all people would be protected by high vaccine rates.
“Whether they choose to do that and thereby take on the greater risks of not being vaccinated, then that is also a choice they’re making,” he said.