National cabinet has agreed to halve the number of people allowed into Australia each week and to set up vaccination targets.
Friday’s decision means international arrivals will drop from 6370 to 3035 a week.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the 50 per cent cut was designed to ease the stress on hotel quarantine due to increased risks from the virulent Delta strain of the coronavirus.
“While the reduction of those caps will certainly, right across the system, obviously take some pressure off, as we have observed over the course of these past 18 months, that alone does not provide any fail safe regarding any potential breaches,” he said.
During the reduction, which starts on July 14, there will be more government-facilitated flights to bring Australians to the Northern Territory’s Howard Springs quarantine centre.
Demand for the flights is expected to rise under lower caps.
Mr Morrison outlined a four-phase reopening strategy linked to vaccination rates after Friday’s national cabinet meeting of federal, state and territory leaders.
“A new deal for Australians today to get us to the other side,” he said.
In the first stage, which Australia is now in, premiers and chief ministers agreed lockdowns would be used as a last resort.
Home quarantine is also expected to be trialled for fully vaccinated overseas arrivals, along with capped entry of students and economic visa holders.
“There is clear medical evidence to suggest that vaccination means that shorter periods of quarantine is possible without any compromise of the health and safety standards,” Mr Morrison said.
South Australia had flagged it was willing to work with the government on the trial.
The second phase will start when an undetermined percentage of Australians are fully vaccinated against coronavirus.
The government is still hopeful of offering all people over 16 a jab by the end of 2021, despite just 8 per cent of people being fully vaccinated so far.
That threshold would pave the way for eased domestic restrictions for vaccinated people, with lockdowns only expected in extreme circumstances.
More vaccinated people would be allowed to enter Australia and arrival caps for unvaccinated travellers would be returned to previous levels.
Mr Morrison said stage three would involve treating coronavirus like other infectious diseases, including the flu. Phase four is the “back to normal” mark.
Mr Morrison would not put a timeline on when he hoped Australia would reach that phase.
“This is an evidence-led process,” he said.
“What matters is the hurdle [vaccine target] you have to clear and once we set that … we’ll be in a better position to have a view when we may be able to achieve that.”
Hotel quarantine also faces another review after 26 virus breaches since the start of the pandemic.
But Mr Morrison insisted the Delta variant was behind the decision to reduce arrival caps rather than using hotels, which has come under fire from experts.
“The Delta strain is more contagious and so we’re seeking to take precautionary steps to overall reduce the risk,” he said.
Mr Morrison has been under fire since Monday when he highlighted a path for people under 40 to receive the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines.
Australia’s expert immunisation panel recommends AstraZeneca only for people aged 60 and above.
On Friday, he rejected suggestions his loose language was to blame for fuelling more confusion around the rollout.
“ATAGI advice remains a preferential recommendation for Pfizer for under 60, but this does not preclude them from having AstraZeneca,” he said.
“Australians should have the choice to go and talk to their doctor and make a decision about informed consent about their own health.”
The federal government has given legal protection to doctors who administer AstraZeneca to younger people.