It is “not safe” to ease major COVID restrictions like lockdowns and border closures at only 70 per cent vaccinations, yet another Labor leader has warned, criticising Scott Morrison’s federal government for “glossing over” the dangers of an early reopening from the virus.
Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr said Australians should anticipate only “gentle” changes at the 70 per cent mark, and not expect any large updates until the harder-to-reach 80 per cent threshold.
“There’s all this commentary from people who obviously haven’t read the national plan,” Mr Barr said on Monday.
“Let’s stop talking about 70 because it’s not safe at 70… there’s this glossing over in the debate of ’70 to 80′, but 80 is the more realistic step.
PM Morrison spent last week in federal Parliament demanding Labor back his “national plan” for reopening. Underpinned by modelling from the Doherty Institute, national cabinet has committed to gradually reopening the nation and winding back public health restrictions at 70 then 80 per cent vaccine rates.
The plan was agreed by all state premiers, but each has had different interpretations. While Labor leaders in Queensland and Western Australia have rightly pointed out the modelling sets out no specific prohibitions on border closures and COVID rules even beyond 80 per cent – and have reserved their rights to continue those – Mr Morrison has painted vaccine targets as the milestones to “end lockdowns” for good.
The PM has attempted to frame an argument where he could claim that Labor opposing the plan meant it supported endless COVID restrictions. Labor leader Anthony Albanese has raised concerns about hospital capacity, to deal with the deaths and cases predicted by Doherty’s modelling, claiming the government picked a fight with premiers in an attempt “to distract from their own failures”.
“Last week, was an attempt by the government to change the narrative to talk about what’s happening way, way down the track when there’s a crisis right before us at the moment,” he told Radio National on Monday.
Earlier, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg slammed the “ridiculous situation” where, hypothetically, it may be easier to travel overseas than to travel to Queensland, if premiers retained border closures.
“Australia must bring stringent lockdowns and border closures to an end at vaccination rates of 70 to 80 per cent,” Mr Frydenberg wrote in an opinion piece.
It would be a ridiculous situation if someone in NSW could travel to Canada before they can go to Cairns.
We must end stringent lockdowns & border closures when we reach 70-80% vaccination rates, as agreed to at National Cabinet. pic.twitter.com/s2p7m7Q1ck
— Josh Frydenberg (@JoshFrydenberg) August 29, 2021
But just three kilometres away, on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin, Mr Barr was joining the growing pushback from state Labor leaders over the Coalition’s roadmap. In a press conference at the ACT’s legislative assembly, Mr Barr all but conceded his own territory would not come out of lockdown as scheduled on Thursday, after 12 new virus infections on Monday.
He flagged possible minor easing of some restrictions, but said further rules could not yet be lifted safely.
“Even the Prime Minister is changing his language, that 70 per cent is not the magic number. It’s a very gentle step forward,” he said.
“The plan is very clear on that.”
Mr Barr said last Friday’s national cabinet meeting focused heavily on the “significant risks associated with the 70 per cent threshold”, and emphasised his belief that only minor changes could come at that mark.
Mr Barr said 80 per cent was a “much safer level” to start easing public health rules.
“Eighty is a better number to be focusing on … 70 is a gentle step forward, 80 is a more significant one,” he said.
Mr Barr hoped the ACT would be the first jurisdiction to hit 70 and 80 per cent full vaccination, and expected an ambitious 95 per cent vaccination rate by Christmas. The territory is a close second on the tally of full vaccination, with 40.7 per cent of residents having received two doses.
That’s just a shade behind Tasmania, which is at 41.3 per cent full vaccination. The national average is 34.2 per cent.
WA Premier Mark McGowan has been heavily criticised by the federal government for saying he reserved his right to use lockdowns and border closures even beyond the 80 per cent goal. Mr McGowan said he wanted to “keep COVID out for as long as we can”.
“At some point in time we’ll open the borders, but the idea that at 70 per cent vaccination we just deliberately infect our citizens and shut down parts of our economy is complete madness,” he said.
WA lags the rest of the country on vaccines, with the lowest full-dose number of just 30.9 per cent. The federal government has demanded WA’s border rules ease as vaccinations increase.
But Mr Barr also noted, correctly, that “the national plan doesn’t prohibit lockdowns beyond 80 per cent”.
Instead, the national plan notes that at 70 per cent vaccinations, lockdowns are “less likely but possible”. At 80 per cent, the plan says Australian jurisdictions should have only “minimum ongoing baseline restrictions, adjusted to minimise cases without lockdowns”, and “highly targeted lockdowns only”.
“It does allow for premiers to make decisions. It’s silent when it comes to border closures,” Mr Albanese said.
“It speaks about minimising baseline restrictions, adjusted to minimise cases without lockdowns.”
Nowhere does the plan say lockdowns will never happen. The plan also carries the key caveat that it is “is based on the current situation and is subject to change if required”.