Coalition acknowledges targeted lockdowns may still happen once vaccination rate exceeds 70%

The federal finance minister, Simon Birmingham, has acknowledged that targeted lockdowns could still happen once 70% to 80% of adults are vaccinated, and has moved to reassure Australians “we are not about to walk away from them” in terms of providing ongoing hardship assistance.

Birmingham’s more nuanced tone on Wednesday followed recent declarations from the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, that the Morrison government could withdraw economic support if state premiers failed to phase out lockdowns once vaccination rates exceeded 70% of Australians over the age of 16.

Leaders in the federation have been roiling for the best part of a week about whether or not Doherty Institute modelling underpinning Australia’s national plan for reopening was emphatic that lockdowns would end once the vaccination targets were reached.

Scott Morrison has been preparing Australians for a step down in public health restrictions. But the prime minister has been under pressure because of a sustained pushback from some of the states and territories about the risks associated with moving too quickly given major cities are now battling substantial Delta outbreaks.

It comes as Morrison confirmed in parliament that school children aged 12 and older would be offered a Covid-19 vaccine before the end of the school year.

Morrison had previously said he was keen for the vaccination of this age group to start this year, flagging interim advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) was “imminent”, possibly by the end of this week. National cabinet was expected to agree to this on Friday.

The Atagi co-chair Allen Cheng had previously indicated a decision on opening up the program to 12- to-15-year-olds would be made “in coming months”, building on the agency’s recommendation for 220,000 vulnerable people already in this age bracket.

On Wednesday, New South Wales reported 919 cases – a new daily high for the pandemic – and two deaths. Large hospitals in Sydney’s west were now under significant strain, although the state health minister said the system was coping.

Queensland, fearing another outbreak, restricted movements across the border. The ACT recorded another nine new infections, bringing the total of the current Delta outbreak in Canberra to 176.

The Doherty Institute work suggests that lockdowns are less likely to be necessary once vaccination rates increase, but it also says if an outbreak is substantial enough to render testing and contract tracing efforts only “partially effective” then “light or moderate restrictions will probably be insufficient to regain control of epidemics, even at 70% [vaccination] coverage”.

It says “prolonged lockdowns would probably be needed to limit infection numbers and caseloads”.

On Wednesday Frydenberg repeated his warning that “there should be no expectation on behalf of state and territory leaders that the scale of our economic support would continue in the same way” if they failed to phase out lockdowns at the 70% and 80% vaccination targets in the national plan.

Frydenberg told Sky News that “zero Covid forever is not realistic”, so Australia would have to get used “to illness, death and more cases” once restrictions were eased.

But in a separate interview on the ABC, Birmingham’s tone was significantly more measured.

The finance minister acknowledged what the Doherty work said. “The Doherty Institute modelling, scientifically based, independently undertaken, show[s] that as we hit fully vaccinated targets of 70% and then 80%, we will be able to step down from some of the restrictions that are impeding people’s lives at present.

“It won’t be a singular freedom day, no one is suggesting that, there will still be a place for targeted restrictions and indeed, perhaps in some circumstances, targeted lockdowns,” he said.

Birmingham was pressed during the interview, given his acknowledgment that lockdowns could persist, whether or not the Morrison government would withdraw economic support as Frydenberg had signalled.

The finance minister said: “Australians should know that we are not about to walk away from them, but we also want the states and territories to uphold their end of the bargain.”

He said right now people in the community wanted leaders to honour agreements to wind back restrictions. People needed to know “that there is a light at the end of the tunnel”.

But Birmingham said if lockdowns were imposed “consistent with what has been agreed and where the evidence stacks up” the commonwealth would continue to provide economic support “as we always have done”.

Phase B of the national plan, at the 70% vaccination rate, envisages that lockdowns will be used “only in extreme circumstances” while border controls will also be “eased” for vaccinated people.

But the premiers of the three Labor-led states of Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia have all warned they reserve the right to use their borders to limit their exposure to the ballooning case numbers in the greater Sydney and regional NSW outbreaks.

Frydenberg said on Wednesday that small business owners in Victoria and NSW had closed their doors due to lockdown and “need hope”. “You need to know there is a plan to open up the economy in a Covid-safe way.”

“That’s why Australians are rolling up their sleeves, they’re holding up their half of the bargain – now it’s up to premiers and chief ministers to uphold theirs.”

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