The number of international flight arrivals into Australia will be halved nationwide in a blow to Australians stranded abroad, while Scott Morrison attempts to reassure the public that the federal government is working with states and territories on a plan out of the Covid crisis.
The prime minister called on Australians to “get vaccinated” in order to “change how we live as a country” – but he indicated it might take until next year to reach the next stage of the four-stage opening-up plan.
The cuts to caps on international arrivals aim to reduce the pressure on hotel quarantine facilities and are in line with increasingly loud calls from a number of states – but the move was not the preferred approach of the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, nor Morrison.
Speaking after a meeting with state and territory leaders on Friday, Morrison said the halving of the caps would not necessarily prevent further breaches of infection control – but “it is believed that is a prudent action” because of the increased virulency of the Delta variant.
That will see the weekly cap on international passenger arrivals into Australia tighten from 6,070 to 3,035 by 14 July. Within those numbers, the cap on arrivals into Sydney – which takes about half of all arrivals into Australia – will go from 3,010 to 1,505.
Morrison said leaders wanted to “try to minimise the disruption for people with already planned flights”. There are currently 34,000 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wishing to return from overseas.
People arriving on federal government-organised flights into Australia, and who quarantine for two weeks at the Howard Springs site in the Northern Territory, are already outside the flight cap numbers, so those arrivals are unaffected by the announcement.
Morrison said the federal government would seek to “ramp up” the number of people arriving on facilitated flights in the coming weeks, noting there had been “a dip in demand” on such flights in recent times.
He conceded the planned increase in the use of Howard Springs “can’t fully ameliorate the impact of the reduction of 50%, particularly out of Sydney” – but he rejected the suggestion it would be a “drop in the ocean”.
He praised NSW for its “extraordinary effort” in carrying half the load of returning Australians. He also said the government planned to “trial and pilot with individual jurisdictions, the introduction of alternative quarantine options, including home quarantine for returning vaccinated travellers”.
Morrison used the post-national cabinet press conference – his first since leaving home quarantine at the Lodge in Canberra after his overseas travel – to attempt to give Australians a sense of hope about moving away from lockdowns and internal border closures, albeit not in the short term.
Amid mounting pressure over the federal government’s handling of the vaccination rollout, Morison said the national cabinet had discussed “a new deal for Australians today to get us to the other side” of the pandemic.
With large parts of Australia currently locked down, and with vaccination coverage still low, he said there was “still quite a journey ahead of us” and the nation was currently in the first of the four stages, focused on suppressing the community transmission.
The thresholds for moving to the next stages would be based on vaccination rates, but national cabinet has yet to reach agreement on what the triggers will be.
The triggers would be based on expert scientific advice and modelling, Morrison said, not “political deals”. He believed the government would be in a position by the end of this year to have offered everyone a vaccine who wants to have one.
The second phase will emphasise policies that seek to minimise serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality as a result of Covid-19, rather than suppressing the number of daily cases overall.
In that phase, lockdowns “should only occur in extreme circumstances to prevent escalating hospitalisation and fatality”.
Morrison appealed to anyone hesitant about getting vaccinated against Covid-19, saying he understood that some people wondered whether they were at higher risk of being run over by a car than catching the virus.
“In a sense we’re prisoners of our own success,” Morrison said. “If you get vaccinated, you get to change how we live as a country. You get to change how you live in Australia.”
As NSW reported 31 new cases of community transmission in the 24 hours to 8pm on Thursday, Berejiklian said she had expressed a view to fellow premiers and chief ministers that “just because you reduce the number of people coming in, doesn’t mean outbreaks aren’t going to happen”.
“My heart goes out to thousands of Australians who have to wait longer to come home,” she said.
Morrison went into the meeting facing blowback from the premiers on a few fronts, including the flight arrival caps and the state of the vaccination rollout, but the ACT chief minister, Andrew Barr, said there had been an “outbreak of peace and harmony”.
As Guardian Australia has previously reported, state governments have expressed confusion over Morrison’s comments on Monday evening about access to the AstraZeneca vaccine for under-40s, because the prime minister had not explicitly flagged it in the national cabinet meeting beforehand.
Morrison denied on Friday that he had been loose with his language on the matter. He said the Atagi advice that Pfizer is preferred for under-60s did not preclude younger Australians from having AstraZeneca if they spoke to their doctor about it.
He also said the federal government had made a decision “to extend the MBS [Medicare Benefits Schedule] item to enable doctors to talk to their patients”.
To date the MBS items for vaccine counselling have only applied to patients aged over 50, but the health minister, Greg Hunt, flagged on Tuesday that that was set to change to include under-50s.
Guardian Australia has sought confirmation from Hunt’s office as to when this change is expected to take effect.