Scott Morrison’s national re-opening plan gave 25 million Australians hope that life would return to normal before Christmas – but just four weeks later his dream is under threat with some states and territories refusing to play ball and forging their own paths.
The Prime Minister said his plan – which had been agreed three times by all state and territory leaders – would allow the country to ‘say goodbye’ to lockdowns in two stages titled phase B and phase C when 70 and 80 per cent of over 16s are vaccinated.
But the high number of cases in NSW and Victoria has spooked leaders in Covid-free states, with several threatening to keep their borders closed or require higher jab rates before scrapping lockdowns, raising the prospect that Australia will remain a divided nation for months to come.
After a national cabinet meeting on Friday West Australian Premier Mark McGowan declared he would not ‘deliberately infect’ his citizens and insisted he would keep state borders closed if it was Covid-free when it reached the 70 per cent mark.
His comments came after two truck drivers tested positive to Covid in Perth after travelling from NSW via SA and Victoria.
Some states are threatening to keep their borders closed or require higher jab rates before scrapping lockdowns, raising the prospect that Australia will remain a divided nation for months to come
The Federal Government wants to get the nation back to normal. Pictured: Police patrol Bankstown in south western Sydney on Friday
The 70 and 80 per cent rates were stipulated by the Doherty Institute which found that if optimal testing and tracing is maintained there would be only 88 Covid hospitalisations, 21 ICU admissions and 13 deaths nationally in the six months after the 70 per cent jab rate is reached.
Queensland and Western Australia both demanded new modelling to take the recent high case load into account – but the scientists came back with the same conclusion that opening with 70 per cent jabbed is safe.
Federal ministers, who want to revive the economy and give Australians their lives back, have piled pressure on states to stick to the plan by writing op-eds in local newspapers and even threatening to turn off financial support to any recalcitrant governments.
At the other end of the scale, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is moving ahead of the plan, vowing to exempt vaccinated residents from restrictions once her state hits a 70 per cent jab rate, even though the plan requires a 70 per cent rate across the nation before any one jurisdiction can move to phase B.
NSW is leading the vaccination rollout with 64 per cent of residents having received one dose compared to the nation’s lowest rate of 48 per cent in WA.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (pictured during a pre-brief for a National Cabinet meeting on Friday) wants Australia to open up once 70 per cent of adults are vaccinated
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, while initially cautious about opening up, has endorsed the plan and increasingly moved away from his Covid elimination rhetoric, acknowledging that Victorians will have to live with the virus – and South Australia has also backed the plan.
Some analysts have warned Australia should not rely too heavily on modelling because, as Queensland leader Annastacia Palaszczuk said, the country is entering ‘uncharted territory’ and must be prepared to adapt policy settings.
But the Federal Government is confident that vaccinations are breaking the link between cases and deaths, as shown by a comparison of outbreaks in Victoria in 2020 and NSW this year.
On the 70th day of each outbreak, Victoria had 10,349 cases and 128 deaths while NSW – where the vulnerable are largely vaccinated – had 14,684 cases and only 76 deaths.
Many Australians are desperate to get their lives back after Covid lockdowns. Pictured: Residents in Bondi, eastern Sydney on Friday
Mr Morrison – who has undoubtedly seen Nine’s recent opinion poll showing 62 per cent of Aussies back the re-opening plan – says keeping the virus out of the country is not sustainable and every state needs to ‘come out of the cave’.
He is also seeking to reassure nervous Australians that the plan is safe and will not result in hundreds of daily deaths as experienced in UK after its ‘freedom day’ on July 19.
‘It’s about opening safely. It’s about opening smartly. It’s about opening in a way that is phased. It all doesn’t happen on one day,’ the Prime Minister said on Friday.
But it’s ultimately the state and territory leaders who hold the power to decide Australians’ freedom – so will they stick to the plan?
NSW: Opening fast
Premier Gladys Berejiklian has enthusiastically endorsed the plan and already promised extra freedoms to vaccinated people once the state hits a 70 per cent jab rate.
By November, vaccinated residents could be allowed in pubs, bars and on intra-state flights, with a roadmap due to be announced soon.
Children will also return to school with Year 1 and kindergarten students going back on October 25; Year 2, 6 and 11 on November 1; and the rest on November 8, the premier confirmed on Friday.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian has enthusiastically endorsed the plan and already promised extra freedoms to vaccinated NSW residents. Pictured: Locals in Auburn, western Sydney
Even before the 70 per cent jab rate is reached, Ms Berejikilian has decided to allow the fully vaccinated to meet in a park with five friends in sign that future freedoms will depend on vaccination status.
The government is also planning trials next month of one-on-one industries such has hairdressing where both the customer and employee are fully vaccinated.
However, it appears that NSW may deviate from the plan by moving too fast because it requires the national jab rate to hit 70 per cent before any one state can move into phase B, the stage when vaccinated residents are exempt from restrictions.
‘Get fully vaccinated, you still have time to make sure that when you start opening up, you have those options to live a freer life,’ Ms Berejiklian told residents.
Victoria: Backing the plan
Daniel Andrews has also endorsed the national plan and vowed to largely scrap lockdowns when 70 per cent of his state is vaccinated.
‘Seventy and 80 per cent will mean we have many more choices, many more options, and they’re all better than the very challenging circumstances that we face now,’ he said on Monday.
‘That means that we don’t have to be locked down, certainly not statewide, we don’t have to have many of the rules that are essential, and our only option at this time.’
Daniel Andrews has also endorsed the national plan and vowed to largely scrap lockdowns when 70 per cent of his state is vaccinated. Pictured: Isolation checks in Shepparton, VIC
Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a pre-brief for Friday’s National Cabinet meeting in his office along with Prof. Paul Kelly (centre) and Lieutenant General Frewen (right)
The national plan says that lockdowns become ‘less likely’ when 70 per cent of over 16s are vaccinated and only ‘highly targeted’ when 80 per cent are jabbed.
Mr Andrews – who subjected Victorians to a 120-day lockdown last year in a bid to eliminate Covid – has conceded his state will have to live with the virus circulating in the community.
He said on Thursday his aim was to ‘limit’ cases until the 70 per cent jab rate was hit rather than eliminate them altogether, a marked shift in rhetoric.
Western Australia: Wants Covid zero
Mark McGowan became the first premier to cast doubt on the plan when he told Sky News on August 15 that he would continue trying to eliminate Covid-19 beyond the 80 per cent vaccination rate.
‘Our preferred option is zero Covid obviously and that’s what we’ll attempt to do,’ Mr McGowan said.
Mr McGowan doubled down on that stance after a heated meeting with Mr Morrison and other state premiers on Friday, declaring he would not risk the health of West Australians.
‘The idea that we just deliberately infect our citizens, if we have no Covid when we get to 70 per cent two-dose vaccination, I just can’t do,’ he said.
‘People would die and we would have huge dislocation. It’s different for other states that have Covid-positive people.’
This is despite David Lipson, the head of the Doherty Institute, declaring that once 70 per cent are jabbed ‘we no longer have zero Covid as a goal’.
Mark McGowan (pictured) became the first premier to cast doubt on the plan when he said he would continue trying to eliminate Covid-19
Mr McGowan threatened to keep WA’s hard border to NSW in place until the state eliminates the virus – which is looking increasingly unlikely with 1,029 cases on Thursday and 882 on Friday.
‘For the foreseeable future, probably until the end of the year, we’ll have to have a strong border in place with NSW because we can’t run the risk of it infiltrating into Western Australia,’ he said.
‘When they get down to zero or minimal spread, then we can look forward to opening the border.’
Mr McGowan claimed everything he has said is ‘consistent’ with the national plan, which makes no mention of state borders.
But on Monday he said he wanted the Doherty modelling done again to take into account the increasing caseload in NSW.
‘Everyone agreed the modelling was out of date,’ he said in reference to National Cabinet meeting of premiers on August 20.
‘All I’d say to everyone over east is calm down, use cool heads.
‘Understand that people across Australia actually prefer not to have Covid… and the NSW model is not the way to go,’ he said.
Wallabies players in the recovery area after receiving Covid-19 vaccinations in Perth on Thursday
WA’s tourism industry has called for a ‘no jab, no fly’ coronavirus vaccination policy for all interstate arrivals to be implemented from December.
But Mr McGowan has described it as premature and showed no appetite for granting freedoms to the vaccinated.
‘The thing about it is even if you’re vaccinated, you can transmit,’ he told reporters.
‘When we get to a certain level of vaccination under the plan those sorts of things, particularly at phase D, will be possible but certainly not at this point in time.
‘The real issue in Australia at the moment is what’s happening in NSW and how we’re going to get on top of it… rather than hypotheticals about what might happen in December or January or some point like that.’
Mr McGowan’s ultra-cautious stance could cost the state jobs and travel access with Qantas threatening to pull its Sydney-Perth-London route in a move he described as ‘outrageous’.
‘The airline is investigating using Darwin as a transit point… given conservative border policies in Western Australia,’ the company said in a statement to the ASX on Thursday.
Queensland: Will suppress Covid
Annastacia Palaszczuk has backed the re-opening plan but also demanded new modelling and vowed to continue suppressing the virus after vaccination targets are reached.
She claimed the original Doherty research was out of date because it assumed the country would only have 30 cases a day when moving to phase B – but the Institute has since clarified that the 70 and 80 per cent vaccination rates do not change if there are hundreds of cases.
The infection peak would be reached sooner after opening but the total deaths over six months would remain the same, it said.
Queensland Police stop cars in Coolangatta at the Queensland border on August 25. Locals need a permit to cross the NSW-QLD border
‘We continue to back the nationally agreed plan for lockdowns to be minimised and restrictions to be limited when vaccination rates reach 70 to 80 per cent,’ Ms Palaszczuk said on Monday.
‘Our aim is always to suppress that virus but even at 70 per cent and 80 per cent vaccination rates…there will be some limited restrictions and some limited or specified lockdown.’
Queensland, which has recorded no new local cases since Tuesday, further relaxed restrictions on Friday to allow uncapped gatherings in public spaces in the south-east.
But a hard border remains in place with NSW, VIC and the ACT with no indication about when it will come down.
ACT: Wants children jabbed
Chief Minister Andrew Barr has confirmed he will unilaterally deviate from the plan.
He announced on Thursday the ACT government would be including 12-15 year olds in its 70 per cent and 80 per cent thresholds, even though the Doherty Institute modelling is based on over 16s only because younger children have less serious illness.
This is despite Mr Morrison saying this is pointless and insisting he has received no advice that it’s necessary.
A nurse administers an AstraZeneca vaccination at Kenolta Medical Centre in Canberra. The city is in lockdown due to an outbreak which hit 176 cases on Friday
In a Tweet on Monday Mr Barr reminded residents that the plan allowed lockdowns at the 80 per cent vaccination rate and said it was always ‘subject to change’.
‘The National Plan and the Doherty Institute modelling are too often misrepresented,’ he said.
‘Most States and Territories insisted on important public health protections throughout the various stages of the plan and recognised that the situation could change.’
Northern Territory: Wants a higher jab rate
Chief Minister Michael Gunner has also vowed to deviate from the plan, claiming the high number of vulnerable indigenous residents in the NT means a higher vaccination rate is needed before scrapping lockdowns.
‘If remote communities require a higher rate of vaccination, that impacts my policy decisions going forward,’ he said on Tuesday August 10.
‘I need really high vaccination rates here, probably higher than the Doherty Institute is flagging in their modelling.’
Mr Gunner has not announced what the higher rate will be.
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner has also vowed to deviate from the plan. Pictured: Testing at the Howard Springs quarantine facility near Darwin
Tasmania: Will keep border shut
Tasmanian Health Minister Jeremy Rockliff went one step further, saying he wanted everyone jabbed before the state fully opened its borders.
‘I recognise the Doherty modelling and the frustration restrictions have imposed over the last 18 months.
‘But we have a more vulnerable ageing population and will be guided by our public health advice,’ he said on Wednesday.
Tasmania has an average age of 42.3, the highest of all states and territories as many of its young people head to the east coast for work.
‘We need to get to a point where we can ease restrictions but we will not risk the safety of Tasmania,’ Mr Rockliff said.
‘Our focus is on vaccination. We would like to ensure more than 80 per cent of eligible Tasmanians were vaccinated before we opened up. Actually, I’d like to see every single Tasmanian vaccinated.’
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to state premiers during Friday’s National Cabinet meeting
South Australia: Backing the plan
South Australia has backed the plan and Liberal premier Steven Marshall, who faces an election on March 19, has repeatedly endorsed it.
‘Right since day one in SA, we’ve listened to that expert advice. The science, that evidence from the experts, has informed that national cabinet position,’ Mr Marshall said on Tuesday.
‘As we move forward, we know that as vaccination rates go higher, the transmissibility of the disease will go lower, the potential for people to acquire it is lower, and when they do get it, it will be with much lower symptoms, lower hospitalisation, lower admission to intensive care and, of course, a much lower chance of dying.’
What are the four phases of opening up?
A. Vaccinate, prepare and pilot (from July 14)
Arrival caps cut in half to 3,035 a week; early, stringent and short lockdowns if outbreaks occur; trials of seven-day home quarantine for vaccinated arrivals in South Australia; medicare vaccination certificates available on apps like apple wallet
B. Post vaccination phase (when 70 per cent are jabbed, expected late this year)
Lockdowns less likely but possible; vaccinated people face reduced restrictions; caps for unvaccinated arrivals increased; a larger cap for vaccinated arrivals with ‘reduced quarantine requirements’; capped entry for students and economic visa holders
C. Consolidation phase (when 80 per cent are jabbed, time not announced)
Only ‘highly targeted’ lockdowns; lifting all restrictions for outbound travel for vaccinated travellers; no caps for vaccinated arrivals; increased caps for students and visa holders; more travel bubbles being set up with countries such as Singapore; booster shots rolled out
D. Final phase (percentage or time not announced)
Uncapped arrivals for vaccinated people without any quarantine and uncapped arrivals for unvaccinated people with testing before departure and on arrival