Canberra (Tribune International, PM Office Release, 5 March 2021): The National Cabinet met today to discuss Australia’s COVID-19 response and the Australian COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy.
National Cabinet continues to work together to address issues and find solutions to the health and economic consequences of COVID-19.
The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, provided an update on the latest epidemiological data and medical advice in relation to COVID-19.
There have been 29,020 confirmed cases in Australia and, sadly, 909 people have died. There are currently 24 people in hospital. More than 14.5 million tests have been undertaken in Australia.
To date Australia’s existing systems built around social distancing, testing, tracing, local health responses and quarantine have effectively mitigated the broader spread of COVID-19 virus and new variants of COVID-19 into the Australian community. COVID-19 vaccines will further strengthen Australia’s ability to control the virus.
Australia has done well on both the health and economic fronts compared to most countries around the world. National Cabinet noted the significant increase in COVID-19 cases in many countries and the comparative strength of Australia’s effort in addressing COVID compared to most other developed economies. Globally there have been over 115.5 million cases and sadly over 2.5 million deaths, with around 446,000 new cases reported in the last 24 hours.
National Cabinet received a detailed update from Professor Brendan Murphy, Chair of the Science and Industry Technical Advisory Group, and the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly on the Australian Vaccination and Treatment Strategy.
Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine roll out is on track. To date 71,867 Australians have received their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Commonwealth Government has allocated over $6 billion to support the vaccine roll out with contracts for over 150 million COVID-19 vaccines, through a diverse vaccine portfolio. Since the last meeting of National Cabinet, the roll out of the Pfizer vaccine commenced on 22 February 2020, with first vaccinations of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine starting today in South Australia. Onshore supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine is on track to commence during the week commencing 22 March 2021. The COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Strategy, agreed by National Cabinet, prioritises those Australians most at risk of COVID-19, including Australia’s front line health workers, aged care residents and staff and quarantine workers.
National Cabinet also discussed this week’s economic growth figures which showed that in the December quarter the Australian economy grew a record 3.1 per cent, the second consecutive quarter above 3 per cent.
The Australian economy has now recovered 85 per cent of its COVID-induced fall, six months earlier and twice as fast as expected in the October Budget.
Our recovery continues to lead the world with our economy outperforming all other advanced economies in 2020. While the United Kingdom contracted by 9.9 per cent, Italy 8.9 per cent, France 8.2 per cent, Canada 5 per cent, Japan 4.8 per cent, the United States 3.3 per cent, Australia was only down by 2.5 per cent.
These results occurred at a time when emergency support was tapering off, with the private sector stepping up. In the December quarter, direct economic support from the Federal Government halved, yet at the same time, the economy grew by 3.1 per cent, 320,000 jobs were added and 2.1 million Australian workers graduated off JobKeeper.
National Cabinet will meet again on Friday 9 April 2021.
COVID-19 Risk Analysis and Response
Today the National Cabinet received the first report from the COVID-19 Risk Analysis and Response Taskforce (Taskforce), led by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Mr Phil Gaetjens.
The Taskforce advised on Australia’s risk profile over the next six months and options for changing policy settings to ensure greater consistency and coordination across jurisdictions in the management of the pandemic.
The Taskforce identified several factors influencing Australia’s changing risk profile, including improvements in testing and tracing; improvements in quarantine practices; the vaccine rollout; vaccine effectiveness against transmission; and new variants of the virus.
Reopening the economy is critical for Australia’s international competitiveness. If we do not progress our economic reopening as the vaccine rollout occurs, we may fall behind our international competitors.
There are some unknowns in Australia’s changing risk profile. Decision-making related to reopening the economy will be informed by expert advice on the economic, social and health considerations.
Over coming months, the Taskforce will consider the changing risk environment in 2021; the impact of Australia’s vaccine rollout; economic, social and health considerations; and options to implement consistent policy settings across jurisdictions to ensure predictability and community confidence.
The Taskforce will continue to report to the National Cabinet monthly.
National Cabinet agreed to pilot pre-departure quarantine arrangements for Pacific workers in their home countries. South Australia has indicated its intention to opt into the arrangement to support their local agriculture sector, subject to finalisation of arrangements. Other states are considering the arrangement with further details of in-country testing and quarantine arrangements.
Since the National Cabinet agreed to recommence the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme more than 2,600 Pacific and Timorese workers have arrived in Australia. However, there remains significant labour shortages and more support for our agriculture sector is needed.
The Government will explore in-country quarantine arrangements for Pacific workers with eligible, low-risk Pacific Neighbours.
COVID-19 Vaccination Roll Out Strategy
National Cabinet noted the detailed vaccine roll out plans. Published efficacy data, particularly from the United Kingdom, strongly supports Australia’s choice of both the roll out of the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines.
The Commonwealth, states and territories are progressively scaling up vaccination sites as increased supplies of vaccines become available.
National Cabinet agreed that states and territories should harmonise legislation and regulation to allow COVID-19 vaccinations to occur in community pharmacies.
International Passenger Arrival Caps
National Cabinet reaffirmed a shared priority to supporting Australians to return home.
Current international passenger arrival caps will continue to 30 April 2021 pending a further review of arrangements at the next meeting of National Cabinet.
National Cabinet noted Western Australia’s staged return to a cap of 1025 passengers per week from 26 March which commenced with an increase to 900 passengers per week on 1 March. This follows a decision by the WA Government to reduce the number of international air arrivals as it undertakes a review of hotel quarantine processes.
National Cabinet also noted a commitment from Victoria to resume international passenger flights into Melbourne as soon as possible. International flights into Victoria were suspended on 13 February with the exception of flights under the New Zealand safe travel zone arrangement, and international freight.
The Commonwealth and Northern Territory Governments reached agreement to increase the capacity of the Centre for National Resilience at Howard Springs after the end of the cyclone season in the Northern Territory.
This will increase the capacity of Howard Springs from 850 persons per fortnight to 2,000 persons per fortnight with a ramp up from late April 2021, subject to capital works, and full capacity between June and December 2021.
The Commonwealth Government will also continue to support repatriation flights for Australians through to the end of 2021, as required.
Final details are being worked through including the scope of works required to upgrade the facility, and strategies to recruit additional clinical and welfare staff.
The Centre for National Resilience is the Commonwealth Government’s response to the National Cabinet commissioned National Review of Hotel Quarantine conducted by Ms Jane Halton, AO PSM.