National leaders to discuss easing restrictions for vaccinated Australians as half the country is locked down

With 16 million Australians again plunged into lockdown as authorities struggle to contain Delta variant outbreaks, the national cabinet is set to examine how allowing vaccinated residents to be freed from restrictions could provide a “powerful incentive” to be immunised.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, will meet with state and territory leaders on Friday amid fresh tensions between New South Wales and the commonwealth over the state’s prolonged and expanding lockdown and as Victoria enters its sixth lockdown following fresh Covid cases.

Residents in south-east Queensland are also under tight restrictions with that state hoping the lockdown could end on Sunday.

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said on Thursday that more vaccines were needed for the state to come out of its lockdown. She asked residents to get “urgently” vaccinated as NSW targets 6m jabs by the end of August.

The federal government is sending an extra 180,000 Pfizer doses to NSW in the next two weeks with Morrison demanding vaccines redirected from regional areas of the state to Sydney HSC students be returned. The prime minister called the approach “dangerous”.

Berejiklian said the extra doses would be sent back to the Central Coast over the next two weeks and welcomed the boost to the vaccination program which she insists is the key to “a freer life” beyond August.

“I have been vocal publicly about our need and want for more vaccines,” Berejikilian said on Thursday.

“We know the vaccines stop the spread. They protect life and keep people out of hospital. That’s why it is so critical and every jurisdiction around the world is finding Delta challenging. We can try and eliminate it but we know the vaccine is critical to stopping the spread and allowing us to consider options moving forward.”

Queensland will also be sent 112,000 “bring-forward” Pfizer doses over the next two weeks.

Morrison emphasised that the NSW government needed to get its lockdown in order, however, rather than rely on vaccines as the way out.

Government figures show there have been more than 13m doses administered across Australia bringing the fully vaccinated rate for the eligible population to 20% while 42.4% have received one dose.

“The primary tool to end the lockdown in Sydney is the success of the lockdown in Sydney,” Morrison said.

“It is the lockdown, number one. The success of that lockdown and the compliance with that lockdown is the key to that lockdown being lifted … and that is supported by the vaccination program.”

In parliament, the PM was asked about his initial support for NSW’s decision not to go into a hard lockdown early – an approach the federal government now claims is necessary after it had earlier criticised Victoria for doing that.

Morrison said any decision to enter a lockdown was “difficult” and previously the NSW approach had worked. “On this occasion that has not been the case,” Morrison said.

In a later press conference he said that every day “every jab is a step closer to where we want to be” and flagged that state and territory leaders would begin discussing how vaccinated residents could be given greater freedoms at Friday’s national cabinet meeting.

“As people are vaccinated, and an increasingly vaccinated population, then there are, of course, exemptions that those who are vaccinated should reasonably expect,” he said.

“That’s what the states and territories are working on now, because ultimately they’re the ones who have to make them available, through their legal systems. And we’ll have an initial discussion about that, I’m sure, tomorrow. The agency that vaccines give you, the exemptions that that may lead to in that phase, these are powerful incentives.”

Morrison also welcomed moves by Victorian food manufacturer SPC to put in place a mandatory vaccine requirement for its workforce.

“The legal basis for that, I’m sure they’ve taken advice about that, and that … will be an issue we watch very closely,” he said.

“Where people are taking decisions that they believe are dealing with their concerns and their interests, then that’s something that the Coalition government … has always been supportive of, but that’s always subject to the rule of law.”

The discussion about potential incentives comes after the federal government released its revised campaign plan for vaccinating the population over the next six months, with the head of Operation Covid Shield, Lt Gen John Frewen, saying it was “mathematically” possible for 80% of the population to be fully vaccinated by the end of 2021.

The government has dismissed a Labor plan for a $300 payment for those who get the jab but has left open the possibility of using other financial incentives if necessary.

Morrison was on Thursday also asked about the low rate of vaccination among Australia’s Indigenous population after it was revealed that just 10% were fully vaccinated – half the rate of other Australians. About 20% have had their first dose.

Morrrison said the government would need to take a “very bespoke approach” to lift the vaccination rate in Indigenous communities. “We will work with the Indigenous health sector to ensure that we can deliver on that very customised approach,” he said.

Pat Turner, the head of the Coalition of Peaks, said she wanted to see a vaccination rate of 100% for all eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “no matter where they live”.

“Especially those in remote communities where there are high concentrations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in overcrowded housing and in poverty. We just can’t afford for any strain of Covid getting inside.

“So I’m going for 100% vaccination and we’ll continue to work with all the jurisdictions as we have to date, to achieve that.”

Guardian Australia has reported that Aboriginal health organisations are concerned that “big gaps” in vaccination coverage of Indigenous communities have emerged that need to be urgently addressed.

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