Australia’s plan to transition from COVID-as-crisis to COVID-like-flu that Scott Morrison announced is designed to send a positive message – and an exhortation – to a community jaded by lockdowns, aborted vacations and closed borders.
But its most immediate and concrete measure is negative.
The caps for returning travelers coming on commercial flights will be cut in half as the country treats the highly infectious Delta strain. The reduced caps, which several states have lobbied for, are expected to last until next year.
Weekly arrivals will be reduced to 3,035.
The federal government will increase the number of its sponsored flights bringing people to the Howard Springs quarantine center. But that won’t make up for the cut ceiling, which will be a big blow to many people who are already struggling to return home.
On the brighter side, other quarantine options will be tested, including home quarantine for returning vaccinated travelers, and there will be expanded commercial trials for limited entry for student and economy visa holders.
Under enormous political pressure over the slow rollout of vaccines – vaccines currently number around eight million – a major goal of Morrison’s four-step plan is to get people to get vaccinated.
Currently, deployment is hampered not only by vaccine shortages and other issues, but also by reluctance – and in some cases complacency. Bad publicity around AstraZeneca contributed to the hesitation.
As part of the plan, vaccine coverage yet to be specified will be the key to ultimately managing COVID like other infectious diseases, including influenza.
But the second ‘post-vaccination’ stage of the plan won’t be reached until next year – and that assumes that all goes well.
A vaccination threshold for relaxing, minimizing or avoiding restrictions, including blockages, will be set based on medical evidence and scientific modeling currently underway at the Peter Doherty Institute in Melbourne.
Morrison said of the vaccination threshold: “It will be a scientific number. It will not be a political number, it will not be an arbitrary number. It could include targets for vulnerable populations such as those over 70.
Experts give a wide range of rates for the appropriate level of vaccination needed for adequate community immunity.
Morrison announced the plan after the National Cabinet at the end of a week that saw scuffles over his encouraging young people to take AstraZeneca, despite mixed health advice.
He denied that his comments on Monday were inconsistent with official advice.
As part of this plan, the country is currently in the first phase – dubbed “vaccinate, prepare and pilot” – when the strategy is to “continue to suppress the virus in order to minimize community transmission”.
The plan has been accepted “in principle” by states and territories. But since they have the power over blockages and other restrictions, they will not be bound by its specifics. In addition, the steps contain menus of actions rather than hard and quick commitments.
The second phase “post-vaccination” “would seek to minimize serious illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths” due to COVID
The prime minister said the national cabinet had agreed on a “change in mentality”.
“Our mindset on dealing with COVID-19 must change once you move from pre-vaccination to post-vaccination. That’s the deal for Australians, ”said Morrison, who has just come out of quarantine after his trip overseas.
The plan says the second phase measures may include easing restrictions on vaccinated residents, such as closures and border controls. There would only be a lockdown in extreme circumstances to prevent escalation of hospitalizations and deaths.
At this point, inbound passenger caps would be restored to previous levels for unvaccinated returning travelers and there would be higher caps for vaccinated returning travelers.
The capped entry of holders of student and economic visas would be authorized, subject to quarantine provisions.
New reduced quarantine provisions would apply to vaccinated residents.
The third phase – “consolidation” – would see COVID-19 managed like the public health management of other infectious diseases. There would be no lockdown and restrictions would be lifted for outgoing travelers who have been vaccinated. The fourth step would bring a final release.
There are no indicative times for the start of the last two phases.
The plan is largely a work in progress, as is the thwarted deployment, but Morrison hopes it will help lead the blows and provide him with political cover.