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Morrison's magic number: PM wants vax threshold to avoid future lockdowns

Politics

National Cabinet has settled on a four-phase strategy to take Australia out of the pandemic, with greater uptake of vaccinations that will ultimately see COVID-19 treated like any other disease.

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The virtual meeting of state and territory leaders hosted by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday agreed to a 50 per cent reduction to the cap on international travellers. During that time, hotel quarantine procedures will be tightened, and there may be a trial of vaccinated Australians being allowed to return to home quarantine for seven days.

The Labor premiers of Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria had called for cuts of up to 80 per cent, amid a push for dedicated quarantine facilities. Queensland’s quarantine hotels are already full.

Morrison said the reduced cap would coincide with an increase in repatriation flights, with returning Australians to quarantine at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory. He urged the States to continue to address infection control breaches.

Moving out of the current phase of pandemic response, into the second phase, would be dependent on further improvement in vaccination rates. Australia has administered 8,000,000 doses, including 1,000,000 in the last eight days.

The thresholds for advancement through the strategies have yet to be determined, but Morrison said phase three would see Australia ultimately “manage COVID-19 as an infectious disease like any other”. Travel by vaccinated people would open up and there would be no more lockdowns within Australia.

“We’re already seeing evidence of that in other jurisdictions that have higher levels of vaccination,” Morrison said.

The final phase might see travellers able to avoid routine quarantine but subject to more rapid testing.

Morrison late on Thursday completed 14 days of quarantine at The Lodge in Canberra, after returning from an overseas trip, and headed to Parliament House to lead the meeting before returning to his home in locked down Sydney.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has called for an urgent reduction in the number of international arrivals, as occurred previously during peak infection periods, to help Queensland cope with multiple outbreaks of COVID-19.

As of this morning, Queensland’s hotel quarantine network was ‘at capacity,’ with domestic travellers caught up in hotspot declarations adding to the number of check-ins. Across 15 hotels, there were 3,097 people being quarantined, 2,459 of those international arrivals.

Authorities have sought extra capacity but, faced with seven-day turnaround to make such hotels suitable for quarantine, have asked travellers to be patient with any delays.

Queensland also wants the Commonwealth to consider mandating vaccinations for incoming travellers, and Australians allowed to take overseas trips, to help manage the risks. Morrison appeared to suggest vaccinated travellers would instead be allowed greater flexibility.

Domestically, Palaszczuk wants full availability of vaccines to dictate when borders restrictions can safely be lifted, saying it should be when every eligible Australian is offered a vaccine, rather than any specific coverage target. Morrison spoke of coverage thresholds dictating Australia’s movement through phases and being based on science.

Around eight per cent of eligible Australians, defined as those aged over 16, are currently fully vaccinated. Alternatives to the AstraZeneca vaccine, recommended only for the over 60s, remain in short supply.

As parts of Queensland remain in lockdown, Palaszczuk said the only way out was to improve quarantine and the vaccination rollout.

“We need to get the population vaccinated and then we’ll be in a position where we don’t have to do these lockdowns,” Palaszczuk said.

Meanwhile, former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has lashed the Morrison government’s vaccine rollout as a phenomenal failure.

In a stinging rebuke, he said it was inexcusable that Australia had fully vaccinating just eight per cent of its population.

“This is just a failure to do the one single most important job the Commonwealth government had which was to get the country vaccinated. It is hugely disappointing,” Turnbull told the ABC.

“I can’t think of a bigger black-and-white failure of public administration than this.”

Morrison triggered a week of competing claims about vaccine advice after highlighting a path for younger people to receive AstraZeneca on Monday, after consulting with their GP.

The expert immunisation panel on Thursday reiterated its advice that Pfizer is preferred for all people under 60 because of the risk of rare blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca jab.

Turnbull said Morrison made a mistake and muddied the message around vaccines.

“I don’t know whether that was just a thought bubble, I don’t know if Scott had workshopped that before, I have no idea,” Turnbull said.

“But the fact that you’ve got so many other premiers and chief medical officers disagreeing with it, and very vocally, obviously undermines confidence in the vaccine.”

More than 12 million people are in lockdown across Australia following outbreaks of the contagious Delta variant of coronavirus.

Turnbull said the government had put too many eggs in one basket by not buying more vaccine candidates.

“These lockdowns are a consequence of the failure to get the vaccination done and it is a massive fail,” he said.

Thursday was a record day for vaccinations with more than 160,000 people receiving jabs nationwide.

-With AAP

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