Australia has outlined a roadmap for the country to move from trying to suppress Covid-19 to living with the virus once enough of its population is vaccinated.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there would be "a pathway from a pre-vaccination period, which is focused on the suppression of the virus ... to one that sees us manage Covid-19 as an infectious disease like any other in our community."
In the meantime, there would be a 50 per cent reduction in passengers arriving in the country to relieve pressure on the hotel quarantine system. The new caps will come into effect by July 14, but some states may move sooner.
Morrison said Australian state and territory leaders had agreed to the four-phase plan:
• Reaching a certain vaccination threshold after offering all Australians the chance to get the vaccine
• Post-vaccination phase where focus shifts from suppressing the virus to minimising serious illness and death
• Consolidation phase where health authorities manage Covid-19 similar to other infectious diseases like the flu
• Complete return to normal with no lockdowns or border closures, and quarantine only for unvaccinated travellers
Morrison said the country was still firmly in the first phase of the plan.
"We continue to suppress the virus. That involves the implementation of the national vaccination plan to offer every Australian an opportunity to be vaccinated with the necessary doses of the relevant vaccine as soon as possible," he said.
While still in the first phase, the reduction in arrivals would help facilitate increased repatriation flights to Darwin.
Morrison said Australia would also trial and pilot a home quarantine scheme, which could also be shorter than the current two-week quarantine time.
Moving to post-vaccination settings in phase two would begin once an unspecified vaccination threshold is reached. Morrison said the vaccination threshold "will be a scientific number. It won't be a political number. It won't be an arbitrary number".
Focus would then shift to "prevention of serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality and the public-health management of other infectious diseases". At that point, lockdowns would "only occur in extreme circumstances to prevent escalating hospitalisation and fatality".
In the third "consolidation" phase, authorities will "manage Covid-19 consistent with public health management of other infectious diseases".
"It is likely we may be in that position in phase two but in phase three, that basically means that the hospitalisation and fatality rates that you would see from Covid-19 would be like the flu," Morrison said.
The fourth and final phase would aim for a "return to normal", where "uncapped inbound arrivals for all vaccinated persons without quarantine" would be permitted.
Morrison would not predict how long it would take to reach that point.
"We believe we'll be in a position by the end of the year to have provided every Australian who wants a vaccine to be able to have received one," he said.
"If Australians respond to that, then I believe that we would be in a position to meet a particular target. At this stage, it's hard to give you a definitive answer because we haven't set what that target is. I hope we're living in that second phase next year."
Federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese responded to Morrison's announcement on Twitter.
"Lockdowns will continue as long as Scott Morrison fails to do his two jobs – the rollout and quarantine," Albanese said.
Speaking to reporters earlier, New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian said lockdowns were "always the last resort" and that she hoped today's national Cabinet decision was the "turning point".
"I broadly support the way forward," she said.
Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Australia's international borders should reopen once everyone has been offered the vaccine, irrespective of actual vaccination rates.
"Once that happens, then I think that's the critical criteria for the federal Government to make a decision [on borders]," she said.
Both Palaszczuk and Victorian premier Daniel Andrews had been pushing for a drastic reduction in international arrivals to ease the strain on hotel quarantine.
"We have a critical window to get our population vaccinated, defeat this pandemic and return to a sense of free and normal life," Andrews said before the meeting.
Exiting the Lodge this morning after 14 days in isolation following his return from Europe, Morrison said Australia needed to "change gears" in its fight against Covid-19.
"The country is very much keen for us to chart that way out of where we are," he told reporters. "Australia has done incredibly well over the course of these last 18 months, but now we need to change gears for the road ahead."