The federal government will supplement more Qantas repatriations in order to offset a 50 per cent reduction in the nation’s arrival caps for the rest of 2021.
A meeting of the national cabinet on Thursday morning also agreed on a pathway out of the COVID pandemic that will feature a trial of swapping hotel quarantine for one-week home isolation for the vaccinated.
It comes as half Australia’s population was living in lockdown this week with domestic aviation all-but grinding to a halt.
The new “pathway” out of the COVID pandemic, agreed by state and federal leaders, will see four “phases” of response until life returns to normal.
During the current phase one focused on vaccinating, preparing and planning, arrival caps will reduce by 50 per cent from 3,010 passengers per week to just 1,505.
The change will come into effect by 14 July but will be introduced at the same time as increased Qantas repatriation flights to the Howard Springs quarantine centre in Darwin. That increase will seemingly be in addition to the 100 new Qantas repatriation flights announced in May.
The flag carrier has been using its 787 Dreamliners for the missions, which have a capacity to carry around 170 passengers each. The expansion, set to roll out over “the coming months”, coincides with the Howard Springs quarantine facility planning to double its capacity, from 850 to 2,000 per fortnight.
The arrival caps will then return to their current levels in phase two, with larger caps for vaccinated travellers.
“I hope we’re living in that second phase next year,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
“If medical advice changes between now and then, if medical advice suggests that we can alter that, then, of course, the national cabinet has always been receptive to that advice and we’ll continue to monitor that.”
Phase two will begin when a specific target of vaccinations has been reached, which will be decided by “scientific evidence”.
In this phase, lockdowns will only be used in extreme circumstances and vaccinated citizens will face eased restrictions. More students and skilled migrants will likely be welcomed, too.
In the third phase, the virus will be managed like another infectious disease.
“That basically means that the hospitalisation and fatality rates that you would see from COVID-19 would be like the flu,” Morrison said. Vaccinated travellers would then be able to travel abroad.
Phase four would see the country return to complete normality.
The TWU said the plan was the Prime Minister exploding Australians’ longing to return to a pre-COVID world.
“Scott Morrison’s attempt to shift the narrative does not mean snap lockdowns and border closures will cease,” said the union’s national secretary, Michael Kaine. “Suppressing the spread of community transmission across borders depends on the federal government providing priority vaccine access to domestic aviation workers and introducing rapid pre-flight testing.”
The federal government said the new deal would also include extending freight subsidies to ensure supplies such as vaccines can reach the country easily.
Most significantly, the package also includes a test of a pilot home quarantine scheme for vaccinated Australians.
“The work that we have already done … shows that a vaccinated person doing quarantine for seven days is stronger than an unvaccinated person doing quarantine for 14 days,” PM Morrison said of the trial, likely to begin in SA.
The news comes after Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews suggested this week that Australia should reduce arrival caps for returning Australians by up to 80 per cent to reduce the chances of lockdowns.
“I want a debate and discussion about how many people we’re letting in and how many people we’re letting out to then return home,” said Premier Andrews on Tuesday morning.
“A lockdown of a whole city, or halving or reducing by 75 per cent or 80 per cent the number of people in hotel quarantine, in my judgement, there’s no comparison.”
The Premier’s comments were also in stark contrast to his NSW counterpart Gladys Berejiklian, who said her state would continue to take international arrivals despite Sydney’s lockdown.
Arrival caps were introduced in July 2020 and initially sat at 4,000, before increasing to 6,500 at the end of 2020 and then decreasing to just over 4,000 in January 2021, before finally returning to more than 6,000 early this year.
The caps are likely to be: