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Australians are being promised a shift within months to easier travel rules that allow home quarantine for those who cross state borders or return to the country as Prime Minister Scott Morrison steps up the case for relaxing lockdowns despite concerns from state leaders.
Mr Morrison urged states and territories to adopt home isolation as a “widespread” alternative to hotel quarantine once travel bans were removed when the vaccination rate climbed to 80 per cent of people aged 16 and over.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to see states and territories use home quarantine to allow international travel once vaccination targets are met.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Business leaders backed the national plan to ease restrictions in a significant collective call from companies that employ about one million workers, warning of a “mental health emergency” from extended lockdowns.
With Labor accusing the government of fumbling the vaccine and quarantine measures needed to prepare for rising coronavirus cases, Mr Morrison unveiled a deal with Singapore to import 500,000 extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week.
The Pfizer doses will be distributed to the states and territories on a per capita basis and be repaid in December in a “swap” with Singapore that has the effect of bringing forward Australian vaccinations.
Mr Morrison said states and territories should prepare to drop hotel quarantine for some travellers, offering another incentive for Australians to be vaccinated and help reach the national targets of 70 and 80 per cent of those 16 and over.
“Home quarantine needs to be a viable and widespread option for people who are travelling overseas and returning – indeed, people who are overseas and have been vaccinated with the vaccines that are recognised in Australia,” Mr Morrison said on Tuesday.
“For that to occur, then we need to get these home quarantine models up and running in states and territories across the country.”
Asked about state border closures, however, Mr Morrison admitted he could not force an outcome and said: “Ultimately, everything is a state matter.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced a trial of home quarantine for some school boarders who return to the state for the September school holidays, but national cabinet is yet to agree on all the rules to be relaxed under the vaccine targets.
Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan signalled his plan to leave borders closed longer than others, saying the federal government had to “get with the program” and accept that WA wanted to remain free of COVID-19 for a long time to come.
The national plan proposes easier travel and fewer lockdowns at the 70 per cent vaccination rate but holds out the prospect of bigger changes at 80 per cent, including the abolition of inbound travel caps and outbound travel bans for vaccinated Australians.
Company chiefs will issue a joint letter, coordinated by the Business Council of Australia, on Wednesday to urge all political leaders to support the national plan or risk social as well as economic damage to the country.
“Australia is juggling a mental health emergency at the same time as a global pandemic,” says the letter from 80 chief executives whose companies collectively employ about one million workers.
“Some of the impacts of current lockdowns are hidden, and the effects will be long lasting.
“As vaccination rates increase, it will become necessary to open up society and live with the virus, in the same way that other countries have done.
“Providing a light at the end of the tunnel will encourage more Australians to get vaccinated.”
The letter follows a series of calls from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg for business to speak up in support of the national plan to make sure states and territories open their borders.
Tasmania has the highest rate of second-dose coverage at the moment, at 42.1 per cent of its eligible population, closely followed by the ACT with 41.3 per cent. NSW has fully immunised 37.1 per cent and Victoria has given two doses to 34.7 per cent, while Queensland and WA lag behind at 31.7 and 31.5 per cent respectively.
Ending state border closures is a matter for those jurisdictions, Mr Morrison said. But once 80 per cent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, the economic and health evidence says those restrictions cause more harm.
“Ultimately, everything is a state matter. But I know that there was agreement to the national plan which wants to see Australians come together, and we want to do that safely,” he said.
“When you’ve got more than 80 per cent of the country vaccinated, and especially when every state has passed that 80 per cent threshold, then what I do know is that the medical and the economic advice is that lockdowns do more harm than good.”
Mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers is “very high on the agenda” at national cabinet, Health Minister Greg Hunt said. While it was a matter for states and territories to act on, Mr Hunt said making vaccines mandatory in aged care workers had led to a large increase in immunisations.
Mr Morrison said it was important to move away from furloughing health workers, as is currently the case in NSW and Victoria for staff who are close contacts of cases.
“We’ve always been, very forward-leaning on the necessity of vaccinations for those working directly in health care, and for this additional reason that once we particularly move into these new phases, if you’re vaccinated, you shouldn’t have to be furloughed,” he said.
Five million doses of mRNA vaccines alone will become available through September after the federal government struck a deal with Singapore to receive 500,000 Pfizer doses from the country this week, in exchange for sending them the same amount in December.
The bump in supplies – dubbed “doses of hope” by the prime minister – comes as the program opened up to everyone aged over 16 this week, and further widens to include 12 to 15-year-olds from mid-September. The additional doses will be distributed next week on a per capita basis.
“This will greatly assist the national vaccination program as it brings in two important age groups into the program,” Mr Morrison said.
Nearly 19.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines have been administered to date, and 35 per cent of the eligible population aged 16 and over are now fully vaccinated.
Mr Hunt said jabs were now being put into arms at a rolling average of 1.9 million doses a week, a target the government expected to reach in a month’s time.
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