Federal minister admits Australia’s reopening plan ‘could change’ as Covid continues to strain hospitals

A Morrison government minister has left the door open to changing the national reopening plan amid growing concerns about the health system’s capacity to cope with increasing Covid-19 case numbers.

“Goodness, anything could change next week,” the federal employment minister, Stuart Robert, told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.

Over the past fortnight the federal government has been campaigning hard for all states and territories to proceed to the next stages of the opening-up plan when the next two thresholds are met: 70% and 80% of over-16s fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

But many observers and state and territory leaders have pointed out the plan is more nuanced than how some federal government figures have presented it. The plan, agreed by national cabinet in July, was always “subject to change if required”.

Robert began the ABC interview on Sunday by saying the national plan “is what we need to stick to”, and argued state border closures should end when lockdowns ceased.

He played down concerns about the health system, saying that “a lot of work started” in the early stages of the pandemic last year when “we were faced with very genuine fears that we have faced now [of] great overloads of the hospital system”.

But Robert conceded the national plan might have to change, because “there will always be continued modelling and further work”.

“Oh, goodness, look at the last 12 months, things have been shifting on a daily and a weekly basis. The Delta variant has thrown everything up. A plan is always a basis for change, it has to be,” Robert said.

Pressed by Insiders presenter David Speers as to whether the 80% vaccination benchmark for more substantial opening up might shift if governments were worried about the hospital system, Robert said that “anything could change next week”.

Robert cited the possibility of new variants of the virus emerging.

“Of course plans change, David,” Robert said. “Nothing’s set in stone. My goodness, you will have a plan for your show next week and I’m sure you will change it when something else comes up.”

The federal opposition’s treasury spokesperson, Jim Chalmers, went on the attack over Robert’s “rambling, train wreck of an interview”.

Chalmers said Robert had “completely torpedoed the destructive and dishonest claims that the prime minister and the treasurer have been making about the rigidity of the national plan.”

“This prime minister has created a climate of conflict to distract from his own failures on vaccines and quarantine, which are locking down our communities and smashing our economy,” Chalmers said.

Chalmers said the prime minister, Scott Morrison, should stop “playing politics with the national plan” and instead “work constructively with the states and with the Australian community more broadly, so that we can open up safely and confidently and responsibly when the time comes.”

The comments come amid growing concerns about the capacity of the hospital system, particularly in New South Wales, which on Sunday reported 1,485 new Covid-19 cases and three deaths.

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said the peak in hospitalisation and intensive care in her state was expected in October.

Asked about Robert’s comments, Berejiklian said it had “always been the case that when you hit 70% double dose you can give freedoms to your community that otherwise weren’t there.”

Berejiklian said she had not heard the interview. But she said Robert might have been referring to the fact that the specifics of “what NSW looks like at 70% double dose might be different to what WA looks like” at that same level.

The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said on Sunday: “Look, well, he’s not at national cabinet, right. I think the very clear message here is national cabinet wants to get this right and the Doherty Institute is doing more work and when we get that extra work we will come in and have a good discussion about it.”

Palaszczuk urged Queenslanders to keep putting out their arms for vaccination. “This is like an emergency,” she said. “This is to avoid our hospitals becoming overrun with Covid patients and people getting sick.”

The next meeting of the national cabinet is expected to consider pressures on the health system and whether any extra steps will be needed as part of moving to the next two phases of the national plan.

That will include options for boosting the health workforce “to meet anticipated increased demand”, Morrison said after Friday’s meeting. He also revealed 4m Pfizer doses would arrive from the UK.

At Phase B of the plan – linked to 70% vaccination – lockdowns are “less likely but possible” and vaccinated residents will enjoy an easing of some restrictions, with those details yet to be decided.

According to the plan, Phase C – linked to 80% vaccination – will include “highly targeted lockdowns only” and will see vaccinated residents being exempted “from all domestic restrictions” as well as from international travel restrictions.

On Sunday the deputy leader of the federal opposition, Richard Marles, accused the government of “sabre rattling, abuse [and] constant criticism” of state governments, arguing this would not help achieve the national opening-up plan.

During an interview with Sky News, Marles said the Morrison government’s approach “doesn’t build trust and it doesn’t build confidence and it doesn’t get everyone on the same page”.

The federal assistant treasurer, Michael Sukkar, took aim at what he said were “ill-informed” comments from Palaszczuk about the vulnerability of children if the nation opened up at this stage.

Sukkar – a Victorian MP – told Sky News the comments “seem to be designed to put fear into parents, which I think is a pretty despicable thing to do at the moment”.

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