SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Australia will cut international arrivals by 50 per cent in a bid to halt a surge in the delta-variant of the coronavirus that this week forced half the population into lockdown, as the government starts looking at creating a road-map out of the pandemic.
While the reduction of commercial-flight arrivals will take the pressure off the hotel-quarantine system, "that alone does not provide any fail-safe regarding any potential breaches" of the virus into the community, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Friday (July 2).
The cuts are expected to last until at least the end of the year, he said.
Mr Morrison said state and territory leaders had also agreed to map out a pathway to switch from virus suppression to focus on reducing the risk of serious illness and hospitalisation, depending on high vaccination rates that are yet to be determined.
In the meantime, Mr Morrison's arrival cuts mean that even as other developed economies such as the US and the UK open up, Australia is further isolating after imposing strict border restrictions when the pandemic began 15 months ago.
A tardy vaccination rate - the second-slowest among the 38 OECD nations - has made it particularly vulnerable to the delta variant, which is increasingly leaking out of the ad-hoc quarantine system for international arrivals.
The leaders of Victoria and Queensland states have been pushing for urgent cuts to the intake of arrivals, saying it's allowing for too many non-Australian residents to enter the nation, sometimes with infections.
That's contributed to the lockdowns imposed in the past week in cities continent-wide, including Sydney, Brisbane and Perth; the current outbreaks are also linked to mining workers and airline crew who have travelled around the nation.
The snap lockdowns show the limits of Australia's so-called "Covid-zero" strategy, which has relied on closed international borders and rigorous testing to eliminate community transmission of the virus.
In contrast to the UK and US which have had relatively strong vaccination rates, a slow rollout in Australia means the economy, and particularly domestic tourism, remains vulnerable.
Following similar moves by Singapore, Mr Morrison said Australia would start to treat Covid differently as vaccination rates increase.
The nation would incrementally implement a four-stage plan:
- Vaccinate and suppress the virus;
- Minimise serious illness, hospitalisation and death;
- Treat Covid like other infectious diseases such as the flu; and
- Return to normal life, including lifting travel caps for vaccinated people and allowing a more porous international border.
"When it is like the flu, we should treat it like the flu, and that means no lockdowns," Mr Morrison said.
Still, he gave no timelines or vaccination thresholds for the stages to be reached.
While 83.9 per cent of international arrivals in June were returning Australians, there are still 34,000 people trying to get home, Mr Morrison said.
His government would increase chartered flights in a bid to get more back in the country, he said.
"My heart goes out to thousands of Australians who have to wait longer to come home," New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.
Ms Berejiklian has resisted new arrival caps, even as Australia's most-populous city is in the midst of a two-week lockdown that may need to be extended, with cases rising by 31 infections on Friday from the previous day.
"Just because you reduce the number of people coming in, doesn't mean outbreaks aren't going to happen."
Government data shows that Australia had provisionally-estimated arrivals of 115,600 in May, up 60,800 from the previous month.
The increase was mainly due to the start of a travel bubble with New Zealand in mid-April that has since been suspended due to the delta outbreaks.
Still, May 2021 arrivals plummeted 92.7 per cent when compared with pre-pandemic levels two years earlier.
The government's vaccination programme has been hit by supply-chain holdups from contracted drug-makers, and confused messaging from authorities about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been linked to rare blood clots.
The slow rollout, which Mr Morrison says is due to ramp up in coming months when new supplies arrive, has been criticised by health experts and political rivals, with Labor leader Anthony Albanese saying it's a result of the government inking deals with too few vaccine-makers, for too few doses.
Mr Morrison's predecessor as prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who represented the same conservative Liberal Party, has weighed in.
In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp on Thursday he described the rollout as "inexcusable."
"I can't think of a bigger black-and-white failure of public administration than this," Mr Turnbull said. "Governments make lots of mistakes of course, as we all do, but this is something that was very doable."