Australia PM backs reopening targets, says Covid-19 lockdowns unsustainable

A police officer patrolling a quiet George Street in Sydney on Aug 21. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday (Aug 23) that the country must begin to ease strict Covid-19 restrictions once vaccination rates increase, with over half of all Australians enduring weeks-long lockdowns to curb Delta variant outbreaks.

His comments come as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday extended the country's strict nationwide Covid-19 lockdown for several more days saying the current outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus had not yet peaked.

Some Australian states have flagged that they may not stick to a national plan that would include relaxing border controls, worried about a surge in cases in the country's south-east, with Sydney breaking new one-day records for infections.

"(Lockdowns) cannot go on forever. This is not a sustainable way to live in this country," Mr Morrison said during a televised media conference in Canberra.

"Because if not at 70 per cent and 80 per cent, then when? Then when? We must make that move and we must prepare to make that move and we must prepare the country to make that move."

The federal government last month unveiled a four-stage plan to relax restrictions once 70 per cent of its 25 million people aged over 16 are vaccinated, with stringent lockdowns "unlikely" to be required.

When vaccination coverage reaches 80 per cent, only "highly targeted lockdowns" would be necessary and vaccinated Australians would be free to travel interstate.

However, Western Australia and Queensland states have raised concerns that the plan was agreed before a large outbreak in New South Wales (NSW), where daily cases have topped 800 for the past three days.

On Monday, NSW reported 818 cases, most of them in Sydney, slightly down from the record 830 a day earlier.

Australia managed the pandemic better than many other developed countries but a slow vaccine roll-out has thrown Sydney and Melbourne, its largest cities, and capital Canberra into lockdowns to combat outbreaks of the Delta variant.

Nationally, 30 per cent of people above 16 are fully vaccinated, while 52 per cent have had a least one dose. Vaccinations are running at a record pace but the target of 80 per cent fully vaccinated will not be reached until December at the current rate.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said on Monday that the state's residents must learn to live with the virus, urging people to get vaccinated soon.

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"Once you get to 80 per cent double dose, every state will have to live with Covid-19. You cannot keep Delta out forever," she said.

Australia has reported just over 44,600 cases in total. There have been 984 deaths, although the death rate has declined since last year.

Separately, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday extended the country's strict nationwide Covid-19 lockdown saying the current outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus had not yet peaked.

New Zealand's level 4 national lockdown was extended by three days until midnight on Friday (Aug 27) while Auckland, the epicentre of the outbreak, will have restrictions in place at least until Aug. 31.

"The safest option for all of us right now is to hold the course for longer," Ardern said at a news conference.

"If the world has taught us anything it is to be cautious with this variant of Covid-19," she added.

Ardern said contacts in the community by people infected with the Delta variant were reported all over the country. There are more than 320 locations of interest linked to the outbreak and 13,000 contacts have been recorded, far more than in previous outbreaks.

"Delta has changed the rules of the game," Ardern said.

New Zealand earlier on Monday reported 35 new cases of Covid-19 taking the total number of infections in the outbreak to 107.

The health ministry said in a statement that 33 new cases are in Auckland and two are in the capital Wellington.

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