Scott Morrison indicated that Australia is likely to open up to international students and skilled workers next week, while health authorities continue to consider whether the timing of the booster injections should be adjusted.
The federal government has revealed that it will extend the emergency powers for another two months until February 2022, while maintaining mandatory mask-wearing for international flights and restrictions on international travel from countries considered high-risk.
The impact of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was high on the agenda for this year’s last national cabinet meeting, but Morrison said his government is leaning toward reopening its doors to international students and skilled workers on December 15.
It was originally scheduled to happen at the beginning of December, but has been delayed to allow authorities to gather more information about the Omicron variant.
Asked on Friday whether the borders would open on that date, Morrison said the government was “taking more advice at the moment, but that’s definitely our act.” He planned to “keep moving forward, not turn back”.
Despite Morrison’s upbeat message, the federal government decided that some measures should remain in place for much longer.
The chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, briefed the National Cabinet that Australia was “still in the early stages of understanding the Omicron variant”, according to a summary from Morrison’s office.
The meeting noted that the Federal Health Secretary, Greg Hunt, had extended the human biosecurity emergency period under the Biosecurity Act to February 17.
Hunt said the arrangements, which have been in place since March 2020 to “protect Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic” and have been extended several times, will continue based on health advice.
Hunt said the two-month extension would “allow the significant measures currently in place to continue as the government continues to reopen Australia and act decisively to respond to the emergence of the Omicron variant”.
This will see the extension of mandatory pre-departure testing and wearing masks for international flights, restrictions on international travel from high-risk countries, and restrictions on international overseas travel for unvaccinated Australians.
But the federal government is keeping the option to rescind any of these rules open before February to “observe the latest medical advice,” as more information is gained about Omicron.
The extension will also continue to restrict entry of cruise ships to Australia. But Hunt said the government would “constantly review, on a monthly basis, whether existing restrictions on cruise ships can be safely lifted or modified.”
The meeting also received an update from the National Immunization Coordinator, Lieutenant General John Frewin, on the administration and delivery of the booster vaccines across Australia.
This comes after it was announced that children between the ages of 5 and 11 will be able to receive the Pfizer Covid vaccine from January 10.
Labor MP Alicia Payne told Sky News: “I think parents would really welcome this consent for children. I know many parents have been spending time up close and waiting for their children to be vaccinated.”
Fewen briefed leaders on “plans to close the gap in vaccination rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the general population, and about ongoing preparations to give Covid-19 vaccines to children aged 5 to 11, including targeted communication strategies,” a statement said. Morrison.
The National Cabinet has decided to update existing Covid-19 outbreak management plans to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities “in light of the variable Omicron and the current outbreak in the Northern Territory”.
The Northern Territory discovered four Covid cases in Katherine, as a group linked to three crowded families continued to grow.
Earlier, Morrison gave a hint that the federal government was considering introducing booster shots.
He told reporters in Sydney on Friday morning: “We are continuing to review the evidence on how that booster time period can be reduced… and we are working with medical experts on these issues.”
Morrison downplayed the severity of the illness Omicron is causing, saying that “it will likely be a huge game-changer with the pandemic around the world about how the virus takes hold, but we’ll see.”
The next national cabinet is due to meet in February, when it will consider new advice from the Kelly and the Doherty Institute on the threshold that must be met to move to Phase D of the national reopening plan.
Friday’s meeting noted “significant progress in reopening Australia”, with Western Australia set to reach 80% over 16 double-dose coverage within days, meaning all parts of the country will have entered phase C of the plan.
Morrison told 2GB Radio that he did not believe the country’s chief ministers would again rush to close internal borders, suggesting the response to the Omicron variant was a “good test” of their nerves.
He commended South Australia’s Prime Minister, Stephen Marshall, for not closing the state’s borders, and praised Queensland’s Premier, Anastasia Pallaschuk, for the imminent reopening of its borders.
Morrison urged all Australians who got a second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at least six months ago to come forward for a booster, “because that will be important next year”.
Queensland on Friday reported four new locally acquired Covid-19 cases and two interstate acquired cases in the community.
Queensland Health Minister Yvette Dath said a Gold Coast closure was unlikely, but urged residents to get vaccinated and wear a mask. “Today is the day we were planning,” she said.
Victoria recorded two new cases of the Omicron variant among travelers who landed in Melbourne from Dubai on November 30.