All states and territories except Western Australia have backed a goal of easing their restrictions and opening up their borders by Christmas, while New Zealand says it will consider opening borders with Australia “once it is deemed safe”.
Scott Morrison played down dissent in the Friday meeting, saying the national cabinet needed to ditch the aim of total consensus on all issues because “that sets the federation up to fail” and “Australia is too diverse a place”.
The prime minister also flagged further talks with the states, territories and airlines to consider increasing the number of Australians able to return home from overseas, amid concerns that the strict caps have left thousands of Australians stranded.
Morrison had gone into Friday’s meeting seeking to build support for the replacement of state border closures with localised restrictions and exclusions of smaller subsets of the population based on a common definition of a hotspot.
He said he welcomed seven out of eight states and territories agreeing to revive but modify the national cabinet’s three-step reopening plan that originally had a July deadline for easing restrictions.
“The virus prevented us from achieving that. Seven out of eight states and territories want us to get back to that position in December of this year,” he said.
The acting chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, has drawn up a proposed definition of a coronavirus hotspot: more than 30 new cases in a consecutive three day period in metro areas, or nine cases in rural or regional areas.
Morrison said it was “a good starting point” but conceded that it would “take some time to get that right” in discussion with the states and territories.
“The idea of ultimately moving beyond a situation where you have hard borders, but you move to a situation where you can have a workable hotspot concept … that is something we are going to give it our best possible go to define and to make work.”
The new plan would be different from the old plan because it would not simply define when cafes could reopen, he said.
It would detail how testing regimes would work, how outbreaks would be managed, and the availability of passenger manifests for people flying around the country. It would require the open sharing of Covid-19 case data among the states and territories.
He played down the fracture in the national cabinet, saying the group of federal, state and territory leaders was “practical” and “not everyone has to get on the bus for the bus to leave the station”.
“I’m not going to hold Australia back when one or two jurisdictions, at this point in time because of their own circumstances, don’t wish to go along with the path that the country is seeking to go in.”
The WA premier, Mark McGowan, showed absolutely no sign of relaxing the state’s border policies at a media conference on Friday afternoon, crediting them for the state’s economic recovery and saving lives.
Western Australia “will not be agreeing to a hotspot model … which replaces our successful border controls”, McGowan said. Those border controls would stay in place “as long as the health advice recommends it”.
McGowan refused to set a timeline to remove the hard border with exemptions, suggesting it would require “the elimination of community spread in the east”.
“If we [reopened] too soon it could be deadly, and there would be economic devastation. That would result in the reintroduction of restrictions. That would possibly mean reintroducing, again, a hard border. It would mean people would die.”
McGowan quoted at length from Justice Darryl Rangiah’s findings in Clive Palmer’s constitutional challenge that bans on travel from hotspots would be “less effective” than the near-total border closure.
While McGowan said that he “feels for” people separated from their family members, he noted that Western Australia did not have border communities and so did not experience the same “social disruption” as the east coast.
Another area of disagreement within national cabinet was on a new agricultural code aimed at allowing freer cross-border movement for rural workers. The code was adopted by five out of eight states and territories, but rebuffed by Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania.
National cabinet also agreed that there was a need to boost the capacity to accept Australians who were seeking to come home from abroad, Morrison said.
It follows the release of figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade earlier this week that there are now about 23,000 Australians wanting to return, up from 18,800 a fortnight ago.
Morrison said New South Wales had been doing the heavy lifting on international arrivals and suggested other Australian cities, bar Melbourne, could field more passengers, if commercial operators agreed to fly there.
Morrison said he had also spoken with New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, on Friday , offering to allow New Zealanders to come to Australia under the hotspot approach, irrespective of whether New Zealand reciprocates the offer.
A spokesperson for Ardern said New Zealand remains committed to the establishment of a quarantine-free travel zone with Australia, as soon as it is safe to do so.
“With some states in Australia still reporting community cases, as well as community cases in Auckland, now is not the time to risk opening our border, but we will continue to work with Australia on this so we are ready to go once it is deemed safe.”
Earlier, the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, told reporters the debate about state borders had been “intense” and “intimidating” but she would “not give in to intimidation”.
She said Queensland had “done extremely well by relying on the expert health advice” of the state’s chief health officer and would not change course anytime soon.
On Friday, Victoria recorded 81 new Covid-19 cases and 59 new deaths – all but one in aged care – including 50 people who had died in July and August.
The chief health officer, Brett Sutton, explained the spike was a result of “reconciliation” of data and “complex” reporting requirements. He rejected claims late reporting was the result of Victorian health authorities being overwhelmed as “completely inaccurate”.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, noted positive trends – the number of active cases across the state (2,060) was “stabilising and indeed falling” and the number in regional Victoria under stage 3 restrictions was down to 124.
But Sutton said although the seven-day average of new cases was decreasing, it remained “stubborn”. Sutton conceded Victoria was not on track to reach its target of 40 or 50 new cases a day by week’s end, but “could” still get there.
In New South Wales, just eight new cases were recorded – one in hotel quarantine and seven linked to known cases.
The Victorian government extended the rent and eviction moratorium to 28 March, 2021, increased rent relief grants to $3,000 and eased eligibility criteria.
Ahead of the release of Victoria’s roadmap out of lockdown on Sunday, the Victorian construction union put pressure on Andrews to include construction in plans to ease lockdown restrictions.
Andrews cautioned the business community against calls to open faster and sooner, warning a “safe and steady” easing is the “only option”. Otherwise, “five minutes of sunshine” would result in a spike in cases and a return to tighter restrictions.