Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday lockdown restrictions could be rolled back in a month, depending on three key improvements in combating the virus.
He said governments would look at restarting high-value, low-risk economic activity in mid-May if those goals can be met.
But the PM said social distancing measures would remain in place for the foreseeable future while a vaccine is unavailable.
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“When it comes to the specific economic restrictions that have been put in place, after the next month then there will be the opportunity to review that and potentially make some changes,” he told reporters in Canberra after Thursday’s national cabinet meeting.
Mr Morrison said a patient approach to relaxing restrictions was needed. “If you ease off too quickly too early, then you end up making the situation even worse, and I don’t just mean in the health terms,” he said.
“If you move too early and the health response gets out of control, then the economic consequences will be even worse.”
Australia’s death toll has reached 63 and there are 6468 current cases nationally. Here’s a complete look at what Mr Morrison had to say on the key COVID-19 issues on Thursday.
THE EMPLOYMENT SITUATION
The PM said unemployment figures show only a “modest change” from February, however as this reflects previous data, “we know that is the best figure we’re going to see for some time.”
“We really do need to prepare ourselves as a country for some very sobering news on the economic front in the months ahead.”
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HOW THE MARKETS ARE LOOKING
Mr Morrison said there has been $8 trillion so far put into recovery programs around the world and “Australia features prominently in that”.
“We are advised today that markets are finding a new normal in this COVID-19 world. But that new normal and that relative stability, and everything is relative now, will depend very much on continuing to achieve a stable health outcome and Australia is well placed on that front as well as being able to set out the forward economic plans and the implementation of the measures that we’re already putting in place.”
WHAT THE VIRUS MEANS FOR THE BUDGET
He said there will be a Budget in October and debt and deficit remain a primary concern.
“Debt and deficit concerns me greatly and my concern about debt and deficit is based on the fact that I have been part of a government for six years that has worked incredibly hard to get the Budget back into balance and a growth in debt reduced from 30 per cent to 0 in the space of that six years, so when you go through that process you are particularly sensitive to the issues of increased debt and deficit.”
HOW AUSTRALIA COMPARES TO OTHER COUNTRIES
Mr Morrison said Australia is in the “suppression phase” of the pandemic and is not in “eradication mode”.
“Nor are we in the other mode which would just see some sort of herd immunity approach. These are not the approaches that we are following in Australia. We are not in the Sweden end, nor are we at the New Zealand end, when it comes to how we are approaching things. And our data and our experience shows that, in that phase, we are doing relatively very well. Particularly over countries that are using even more extreme forms of lockdown.
“But we can’t overstate this success. There is a high number of internationally-acquired cases and that means that we need to look at the numbers in that context. But it is pleasing to know that it is estimated more than half of those who’ve contracted the coronavirus in Australia have actually overcome it, and that is also good news in terms of the actual number of people currently suffering from the coronavirus.”
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ON LOCKDOWNS VS LIVELIHOODS
Mr Morrison said he is trying to balance the cost of the virus in terms of health and economics.
“The eradication pathway involves an approach which would see even more economic restrictions than are currently in place and that is not seen to be, a wise, in our view, trade-off in how we are managing the two crises that we are facing, the economic one and of course the health one.
“Now we are doing well on the health one and I want to do better on the economic one. So the suppression strategy which we have been following, that’s basically what we have been following for about a month, I think that has sat well within the groove of Australia’s ethos and how we live and what we would hope.
“I think it is rubbing at the edges a bit in parts of the country, and that is understandable. We like our freedoms, we like to be able to do what we want to do. We like having a barbecue, we like going out, we are very social beings Australians and we really miss it and we miss our kids being able to get together and go to school and be with their friends, and we miss all of that. But the suppression path is the best Australian path. As I have said throughout this, the solutions we are putting in place are the right solutions for Australia. We are not looking to copy anyone. We have the right plan for Australia.”
THREE MEASURES TO PUT IN PLACE
The PM said there would be three measures to put in place before lockdown can be lifted including more testing, tracing and local response.
He said the government will move to achieve these in the next four weeks, and the lockdown will remain until these are in place.
“The first of those is a more extensive surveillance, or sentinel as it’s called, testing regime. So beyond just those who are symptomatic. If we are to move to a different phase when it comes to the restrictions we need an even broader testing regime than we have at this point. Now we have one of, if not the most, extensive testing regimes in the world today but we need to do even better than that to ensure that we can have greater confidence that when we move to a lesser restriction environment, then we can have confidence that we’ll be able to identify any outbreaks very, very quickly and respond to them.
“The second part of that is ensuring that we have an even greater tracing capability than we have now. But we need to lift that to an industrial capability and we need to do that using technology and we need to do that as soon as we possibly can and we will be needing the support of Australians. If we can get that in place, if we can get our tracing capability up from where it is, then that is going to give us more options and Australians more freedoms.
“The third area is that we need a local response capability. We’re seeing this in part now in northwestern Tasmania where we have an outbreak, the Australian Defence Forces, the AUSMAT teams, working together with state authorities have been moving very quickly to contain that outbreak. And there will be other outbreaks in other parts of the country and in all states and territories, we need that ability to move very fast to be able to lock down an outbreak where it occurs and to ensure that it does not transmit more broadly within the community. If we are going to move to an environment where there are fewer restrictions then you need these three things in place.”
HOW THE EDUCATION SYSTEM IS ADAPTING
Schools have been a major issue during the lockdown and the PM said seven principles have been agreed and it is a state and territory issue.
“I want to make this really clear. The Commonwealth does not run public schools, state schools. They are run by state governments. They set the policy, they set the rules.
“The health advice has always been consistent, that this virus behaves very different with children than it does with adults and for children, the health advice has been very clear, that schools are a safe place for students to be.
“I think where the confusion arises is that for teachers they are more likely, teachers are more at risk in the staffroom than they are in the classroom, when it comes to how the health advice plays out and the impact of this virus on children as opposed to teachers.
“That means that we need to have proper arrangements in place for teachers and other staff in schools, obviously, to protect their work environment. But at the same time, that doesn’t lead to the same rules applying for students because they have a different level of risk. So that is the advice of the medical expert panel and that is contained in the principles and in the advice that is tabled today.”
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BORDER ARRANGEMENT WITH NEW ZEALAND
New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters has suggested border restrictions with Australia could be eased, in a trans-Tasman “bubble” if low case numbers were achieved in both countries.
Mr Morrison said “we are aware of their interest in that, it has not got much beyond that.”
“I mean New Zealand at the moment has been in a state of even more extreme lockdown, there in New Zealand, that has been their process. So we are aware of that but we are not at present contemplating any border changes at the moment, we will obviously work closely with New Zealand, we have all along, and our measures have largely mirrored each other, New Zealand decided to go a lot further but I’d note that the outcomes we are getting are actually on a per capita basis actually better than what is happening in New Zealand, that is not a criticism that is just to say that while following different practices, where we’ve pitched it has managed to get as good if not a better outcome.”
WILL THE GOVERNMENT BAIL OUT VIRGIN?
Mr Morrison said the government “appreciates the value of two competitive, viable airlines in the Australian economy.”
He said “any responses that the Commonwealth government is going to have will be done on a sector wide basis, and that’s the way we will continue to pursue those issues.”
AUSTRALIA TO CONTINUE FUNDING WHO
The US decision to stop funding the World Health Organisation sent shockwaves around the world on Thursday, however Mr Morrison has confirmed Australia will continue to pay its share.
“While I have had my criticisms of the WHO as have many other leaders, and I think they are very valid criticisms, we have got to remember also, while they may have had a few poor outings lately there are also some very important work they have been doing and I do want to make reference to it.
“The WHO has responded in our Pacific family here to over 300 requests from the Pacific, 68 shipments of PPE to 20 countries and territories, over 35 deployments to countries assisting Fiji in particular with their testing capability, establishing COVID-19 isolation facilities in Timor-Leste, this is the same WHO that was there in the Samoa measles outbreak of last year, the polio outbreak in PNG in 2018 and they do work in the Western Pacific on eliminating measles, rubella and tetanus, maintaining high levels of polio vaccination, the safety of essential medicines and vaccines, eliminating mother to child transmission of HIV and hepatitis and preventing diabetes and hypertension.
“So look I know they have had their criticism and frankly I think it has been quite deserved and of course we are frustrated but they do important work, they do important work, and they do important work here in the Pacific and we will keep working with them but it won’t be uncritical.
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HOW AUSTRALIA IS TRACKING TESTING-WISE
Mr Morrison said Australia’s testing has been one of the most comprehensive in the world which is helping managing the outbreak.
“Now when you look at the mortality rates you are seeing elsewhere in the world, I mean the UK you are seeing that rate up at almost 13%. And in other countries like Spain it’s over 10%, France, over 13%, in the Netherlands it’s 11%, they have a population of 17 million.
“One thing I think we can be very sure of in Australia and this is why I think Professor Murphy said in the courtyard the other day, the one set of numbers we do believe is Australia’s. And that is because we, I think we are pretty confident, particularly, sadly where there have been fatalities, when they have been COVID related, sadly overseas I don’t think they can have that same level of confidence.”
HOW WILL CHILDCARE BE AFFECTED
“Childcare, the arrangements we put in place for childcare, or universities, or private hospitals, JobSeeker, JobKeeper, these are all on this six-month time frame I mentioned before, and that’s over the June and September quarters and you can anticipate they will stay in place for that period of time,” Mr Morrison said.
WHERE WILL WE BE IN SIX MONTHS?
Mr Morrison has framed the social distancing measures as an effort that will last at least six months, and he provided a little more clarity on that.
“We’ve often talked about what is the six months, when does it start, when does it end. This is the June and September quarter. I’ve always considered the six months the period in which we’ve been operating and will be operating these lifeline measures in the economy, which is JobSeeker with the JobSeeker supplement, and JobKeeper. They run for those six-month periods. We have bought that time to find the road out.
“The six-month time frame gives us a ticking clock basically on this lifeline and it gives us a clear goal to work towards to ensure that we find that road out with restrictions eased ideally, and for the economy to lift to a level of activity where people’s wages and incomes can be supported again, where they can get the hours, where they can get the days, where they can be back working again and be in a position to support themselves and not relying on JobKeeper or JobSeeker or things of that nature.
“That is the time frame that we have bought through those economic supports, so you have got to work backwards from there. There will be I imagine baseline levels of restrictions that will be changed over that period of time, just like we are saying in about a month from now there will be some changes to the baseline restrictions that we put in place a few weeks ago.”
WHAT THE FUTURE MAY LOOK LIKE
“It will be a different world on the other side of the virus and there’ll be many challenges, Mr Morrison said, but “that is a discussion for another day”.
“But between now and as we continue to work through the impact of the virus, the National Cabinet will also have on its agenda the types of things and policy measures that we can take together, working at federal and state level, to ensure we can give our economy every support and, importantly, every freedom to be able to get on and see businesses grow on the other side.”