EXPLAINER

National cabinet has created a new COVID-19 roadmap - here's how Scott Morrison says we 'return to normal'

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

After weeks of conflicting vaccine advice and criticism over Australia falling behind the rest of the world, the prime minister has announced the country has a new plan.

But unlike earlier plans, Scott Morrison has kept things deliberately vague - shying away from firm targets and guarantees for the moment.

What Mr Morrison did promise, however, was that Australia's state and territory leaders would move toward a new approach to dealing with COVID-19.

It's an approach that would result in a shift away from suppression of the virus - the lockdowns - and a move to treating COVID-19 as "an infectious disease like any other in our community".

Friday's announcement was more concept than locked-in roadmap but it marks a major step forward in what the population can expect in the coming 12 months as vaccines roll out and the world tries to reopen once more.

What's the new plan for Australia's road to returning to 'normal'?

Mr Morrison emerged just before midday on Friday to announce national cabinet had reached an agreement on a plan to introduce a four-phased approach to how it deals with COVID-19.

State and territory leaders would work with the Commonwealth to reach vaccination targets before progressing to the next phase.

Each stage of the process would peel back some of the strict restrictions many have faced since March 2020 until the fourth and final stage, which Mr Morrison said would be a "return to normal".

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The first and current phase focuses on suppressing the virus and vaccinating the population with lockdowns only being used as a last resort, he said.

In the second phase, leaders agreed vaccinated Australians would face eased restrictions in the event of future outbreaks and lockdowns and a limited number of international students would be allowed into the country.

The third phase would result in lifting restrictions for vaccinated people travelling internationally and extending the travel bubble to include countries such as Singapore, the Pacific and others deemed suitable.

It's expected caps on international students and humanitarian visa holders would also be increased.

The goal was to reach the fourth and final phase - a near return to normal but with additional measures, such pre-and post-flight testing for the virus, while parts of the population remained unvaccinated.

Ultimately, the phases reflect a two-tiered population - those who are vaccinated and those who are not.

Instead of blanket restrictions and border closures, those who have had the jab would be placed under eased restrictions, allowing more free movement.

Those who haven't yet would need to deal with more of the same as subsequent outbreaks occurred during the rollout as seen in recent weeks.

While the outlook is promising for many hoping to soon travel without the fear of sudden lockdowns and quarantines, we're still a way off from that being reality.

The prime minister was hesitant to provide concrete deadlines - something being determined by expert modelling - but signalled the country could enter phase two next year.

"I hope we're getting in that second phasenext year," he said on Friday.

For now, Australia remains in phase one and could so for at least the next five months.

What's changing for now?

Phase one, Mr Morrison said, was what the country would continue to remain in until vaccination rates increased.

On Thursday, Health Department figures showed nearly 8 per cent of the eligible population had received the required two doses while nearly one-third had received their first dose.

"The first phase is the one we are in. Vaccinate, prepare and pilot. We continue to suppress the virus," Mr Morrison said.

"That involves the implementation of the national vaccination plan to offer every Australian an opportunity to be vaccinated with the necessary doses of the relevant vaccine as soon as possible."

But the prime minister flagged other changes that would occur in the meantime as a result of Friday's meeting.

To deal with the highly infectious Delta strain, commercial international flights would be halved while the government would commit to increasing repatriation flights.

A trial to allow vaccinated travellers to home quarantine would also be considered as a measure to lift the pressure hotel quarantines in states and territories have been facing.

When will I be able to leave the country again?

Mr Morrison's announcement signalled the idea of vaccine passports for both domestic and international travel. Phase two, which he said he hoped Australia would reach "next year", will allow those vaccinated to face eased restrictions and domestic border controls while the third phase would entirely exempt them.

The third phase will also mean the restrictions on vaccinated Australians leaving the country will be lifted and the travel bubble extended.

Once the fourth phase is reached, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people will be allowed to travel to the country with the latter still subject to pre-flight and on-arrival testing.

The missing puzzle piece is when this might happen. No dates were set as they relied on modelling to be provided by the Doherty Institute determining the population percentages needed to meet each phase's threshold.

But once that is announced, Australia's ticket to a return to normal was fairly simple, the prime minister outlined: get vaccinated and the country can get on with the show.

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This story Australia's new 'return to normal' plan first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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