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Scott Morrison has ordered a review of the way Australia deals with Covid-19 outbreaks once vaccinations are under way, suggesting the jabs will change the “risk environment” and pave the way for less concern about raw case numbers.
The prime minister flagged the rethink after a meeting with state and territory leaders on Friday, while announcing that the caps on the number of people allowed to enter Australia would start to increase again next week.
Morrison hinted that Australians could expect a return to a greater level of normality in the months ahead, as vaccinations would reduce the incidence of severe disease and fatalities, while cautioning that “we’re not there yet”.
“The vaccination program, over months, as it’s rolled out, can change the nature of how Australia then manages the virus,” Morrison said after a national cabinet meeting where the issue was discussed.
“The point was made: it’s less, then, about cases as it is about presentations at ICU or seeking significant treatment, and that we can potentially move to a situation where we manage the virus potentially like other conditions that are in the community.”
The head of Morrison’s department, Phil Gaetjens, will work with the top public servants in each state and territory to advise leaders on “how the risk environment has changed in relation to the management of the pandemic”.
That would take into account, on the negative side, the new variants of Covid-19, while on the positive side it would consider how the testing, tracing and quarantine system and the public response had improved.
Morrison said Australia had so far avoided a third wave because the systems had proven themselves over the past couple of months. The impact of the progress of vaccinations will be a key part of the risk review.
The PM did not go into specifics on what he wanted to change – such as the tendency to close state borders – but said he wanted to “understand the risk settings better so we can better manage the pandemic and ensure our economy can grow and Australians can return to as normal life as possible”.
The idea was to have “proportionate responses”, with greater predictability of what would happen as cases emerged, in a bid to improve community confidence.
Morrison said the situation Australia now faced was very different from March last year, when “we stared into that abyss both from a health point of view and economically [and] we were extremely concerned about tens of thousands of Australians dying”.
Morrison said some things that may have been considered too risky last year – such as allowing international arrivals to quarantine at home – may be possible this year, depending on what the review finds.
Morrison said while hotel quarantine could be improved – including issues such as greater use of CCTV and dealing with risks of airborne transmission – he emphasised that the system continued to be Australia’s primary quarantine system for the virus.
He confirmed the government was looking to further expand the capacity of the Howard Springs quarantine system in the Northern Territory.
The government would also continue to assess a proposal for quarantine to be done in Toowoomba in southern Queensland but there was still a lot more information that needed to be assembled.
While around 40,000 Australians are still seeking to return home from abroad, there was slow progress on Friday on flight cap increases.
In mid-January the caps on international flight arrivals were temporarily halved for New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia amid concerns about managing the new more infectious variants.
From 15 February, NSW will reinstate the previous weekly cap of 3,000 passengers into Sydney, while Queensland will resume its previous cap of 1,000 international passengers, plus surge efforts for 300 vulnerable Australians.
Western Australia remains at its currently halved level of 512 international passenger arrivals per week, because Morrison said WA authorities were still working through issues with the latest case.
But South Australia will lift its weekly cap to 530, an increase of 40 passengers.
Victoria will increase its weekly cap by 90 passengers to 1,310, and Morrison said he would have further discussions with the premier, Daniel Andrews, “about where it goes after that.”
Morrison continued to be dogged by comments by government backbenchers, including the Queensland senator Gerard Rennick who told news.com.au he had not yet made up his mind on whether to have the vaccine.
Morrison said he had spoken with Rennick and the backbencher disputed some of the comments that had been attributed to him, even though the story included large slabs of direct quotes and no formal correction had been requested. Samantha Maiden, the journalist who wrote the article quoting Rennick, later confirmed she contacted Rennick again and he did not dispute any of the quotes in the article.
“So for the PM to claim he didn’t say it is wrong,” she said on Twitter.
The prime minister also indicated “a little less” social media activity would be helpful, when asked if he was concerned that the Liberal MP Craig Kelly had resumed posting about Covid treatments since the pair spoke about the need to maintain community confidence in the vaccine rollout on Wednesday.
“I’ve seen a report about that [Kelly’s new post] and I don’t think it represents the type of thing that is being suggested but my position is the same – I think a little less on that front is helpful,” he said.
Morrison did not give leaders any hope of an extension of the jobseeker wage subsidy beyond the end of March, but reaffirmed that the government was prepared to consider targeted support.
The tourism sector has been pushing for assistance given the international border is likely to remain closed for most of 2021.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Covid case numbers will be less of a focus once vaccines roll out, Scott Morrison says | Australian politics