Australians still face months of restrictions, lockdowns and border closures after the prime minister revealed the vaccination targets that would allow a return to some form of normality.
Following a National Cabinet meeting, Scott Morrison on Friday night announced two key numbers Australia must hit to navigate out of pandemic restrictions.
In order to move out of the current “suppression” phase and into a “transition” phase with fewer restrictions, Mr Morrison said 70 per cent of the eligible population would have to be fully vaccinated.
But to bring an end to city-wide lockdowns and resume overseas travel, the vaccination target was 80 per cent.
Mr Morrison provided no timeline by which these milestones should be met but said he expected the 70 per cent target could be achieved by the end of the year.
Currently just 18 per cent of the population has received double doses and Mr Morrison said getting that number higher would require a “team effort”.
“We are seeing our Olympians show that team spirit over there in Tokyo, and we will hit these targets with what I believe will be a gold medal run to the end of the year,” he said.
The announcement comes as Sydney and surrounding regions remain in lockdown until at least the end of next month as health authorities deal with an outbreak which saw 170 new local cases on Friday.
Other states and territories have eased restrictions as their caseloads reduce, but there is no guarantee cases won’t spike again.
Meanwhile the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned the world was at risk of losing hard won gains as the highly transmissible Delta variant surges in many countries.
Japan, which is hosting the Tokyo Games, has experienced a sharp spike in daily cases, China is battling its worst outbreak since Wuhan while Iceland, Vietnam and the UK have had an increase in cases.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said COVID-19 infections had increased 80 per cent over the past four weeks in most regions of the world.
“Hard-won gains are in jeopardy or being lost, and health systems in many countries are being overwhelmed,” said Dr Tedros.
Australia’s road to freedom
As the world battles to contain the Delta variant, Mr Morrison outlined the “four-phase plan” to reopening Australia, based on two-dose vaccination targets:
- Phase A: now
- Phase B: 70%
- Phase C: 80%
Australia is currently in the first stage (Phase A) which means supressing the virus through public health measures, including lockdowns.
To move into Phase B we need to have 70 per cent of the eligible population double-dose vaccinated which would have to be reached nationally as well as in each state.
In this “transition” phase, lockdowns are less likely but still possible and vaccinated Australians returning from overseas will have access to more quarantine options.
Fully vaccinated residents will be exempt from all domestic restrictions, while caps on returning Australians will be abolished.
“So if you get vaccinated, there will be special rules that apply to you,” Mr Morrison said.
“Why? Because if you’re vaccinated, you present less of a public health risk. You are less likely to get the virus. You are less likely to transmit it.”
The PM said he believed getting to Phase B by the end of the year could be achieved.
After that, Australia would aim for Phase C, when 80 per cent of the population is vaccinated, which would trigger the resumption of overseas travel and an end to city-wide lockdowns.
Caps on international arrivals will be abolished during Phase C.
“We’ll extend the travel bubble for unrestricted travel to new candidate countries and as you know, we’re already working with Singapore to that end.”
There is not a vaccine target for the final stage where freedom of movement is back to complete pre-pandemic levels.
In Phase D there will only be quarantine for high-risk travellers.
‘We get there when we get there’
Mr Morrison refused to put a timeline on the plan, saying “we get there when we get there”.
The meeting of national cabinet was the first time state and territory leaders have seen detailed modelling on how many of their citizens need to be vaccinated to move out of the suppression phase.
On Friday, the Australian Medical Association said time was running out to get control of the COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney, calling for stricter and wider lockdown measures alongside a massive vaccination push.
“Unless daily infection numbers come down over the next few days, NSW is in real danger of having to live with the COVID-19 Delta strain for the foreseeable future,” AMA president Omar Khorshid said.
That means ongoing lockdowns and restrictions, not to mention a huge cost to the health and wellbeing of the community and the economy of the whole nation, Dr Khorshid said.
“We know how difficult this is for the Sydney community, but the alternative is months of lockdown or having to face the enormous human toll inflicted by this terrible virus in other parts of the world,” he said.
The AMA said federal and state governments should be pushing the AstraZeneca vaccine in massive numbers in Sydney.
“There is a significant supply of AstraZeneca available in Sydney and this has the potential to save many lives and make a real difference to the length of this lockdown,” NSW AMA president Danielle McMullen said.
The four-phase plan
- Suppression phase: Current state of play. States can put in place early and short lockdowns to deal with COVID-19.
- Transition phase: The national average for the vaccination program as a percentage of eligible adults is achieved nationally (70 per cent) and each state itself has individually achieved the threshold. States seek to minimise serious illness, hospitalisation and fatalities with low-level restrictions. Lockdowns are less likely but still possible. Vaccinated Australians returning from overseas will have access to more quarantine options.
- Consolidation phase: When the 80 per cent vaccination threshold is met. Minimum restrictions with highly targeted lockdowns. Exempt vaccinated residents from all domestic restrictions. Abolish caps on returning vaccinated Australians and lift outbound travel restrictions for vaccinated Australians.
- Final phase: No vaccination target has been recommended. Opening international borders. Quarantine for high-risk inbound travel. Minimisation of local cases without restrictions. Living with COVID-19.