Australians may soon be allowed to gather outside in groups of 10 or have up to five visitors at their homes, as part of a gradual easing of coronavirus restrictions that will differ from state to state.
Scott Morrison has unveiled a three-step plan for restarting economic and social life across the country, setting out an “aspirational” target of July for the final phase, when most workers would be back in their workplace, interstate travel would be up and running again, and pubs and clubs would reopen.
Speaking after a meeting with state and territory leaders on Friday, the prime minister said he hoped to build momentum to “get Australians back up on their feet and moving ahead with confidence” but acknowledged the need to “walk before we run” to avoid large new outbreaks of Covid-19 infections.
And with many countries still facing severe difficulties containing the virus, Morrison also warned that international travel was unlikely to resume any time soon, with the possible exception of the mooted “bubble” with New Zealand.
The exit plan comes as the Reserve Bank argues a V-shaped economic recovery is still “plausible”, but with a warning that a lot hinges on the return of household and business confidence after restrictions are eased.
In the first step of easing the national “baseline” restrictions, non-work gatherings of up to 10 people would be allowed, along with social events at home with up to five visitors in addition to normal residents.
Cafes and restaurants – which have been restricted to takeaway orders until now – would be allowed to seat up to 10 patrons at a time, so long as they had four square meters of space per person.
More generally, people would be urged to work from home “if it works for you and your employer” – a change in emphasis from the previous guidance that bosses should allow people to work from home where possible.
The first phase would also allow for the opening of retail stores; an increase in face-to-face learning at universities and technical colleges; and the opening of outdoor gyms, playgrounds and skate parks with a limit of 10 people.
Childcare centers and schools would be open, the plan says, subject to state and territory arrangements.
The maximum number of wedding guests would increase to 10, while funerals could have up to 20 mourners indoors and 30 outdoors. In the first phase, religious gatherings may also have up to 10 attendees.
Phase Two And Three
The second step would allow for slightly larger gatherings and more businesses reopening, but pubs and casinos would likely remain closed.
The third step would allow non-work gatherings of up to 100 people, while cafes, restaurants and food courts could operate with seating for that same number, and authorities would consider opening bar areas and gaming rooms.
Morrison said while the national cabinet had an aspiration to move through the three steps by July, the pace would “be totally up to the states and territories” and “subject to the health advice”.
“Premiers and chief ministers have asked me to stress there should be no expectation of step one starting on day one – unless they are, indeed, already there,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
Premiers and chief ministers will announce their moves over the coming days, while the national cabinet will consider a “stocktake” of progress every three weeks.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, described the three-step plan as a “menu” and argued it would not be safe to have an identical approach across the nation.
Andrews, who will outline his plan on Monday, warned that some countries had eased lockdowns too quickly and then been forced to impose even tighter restrictions.
“Whether it be popular or not – I will not make decisions that make that more likely,” Andrews said.
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, set out a timetable for restrictions to be eased from May 15 (stage 1), June 12 (stage 2) and July 10 (stage 3).
From May 15, Queenslanders will be able to gather in homes with a maximum of five people and outdoors with 10; beauty salons will be reopened; open homes allowed; and dining in pubs and cafes in outback areas limited to 20 people.
Andrew Barr, the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, announced an easing of restrictions from midnight, allowing gatherings of up to 10 people in indoor and outdoor settings, although he advised Canberrans to avoid large crowds and keep 1.5m apart from others.
Earlier, the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, reaffirmed her calls for easing of restrictions to be done in a gradual way so that “we don’t lose ground”.
The WA premier, Mark McGowan, who will announce his plans on Sunday, signaled his state was likely to ease restrictions more quickly than the eastern states as it currently had just nine active cases of Covid-19.
Australia has so far had 6,899 confirmed cases, with 97 deaths, but authorities point to a slowing in new cases in recent weeks.
Warning on health precautions
The chief medical officer, Prof Brendan Murphy, urged Australians to continue to maintain physical distancing, or the country “could lose the battle that we have won so well so far”.
While the need for health precautions continue, the ongoing economic costs of the crisis were laid bare in the Reserve Bank’s May economic statement on Friday.
It estimated the Australian economy would shrink by 8 percent in the June quarter, and by a further 6 percent in the December quarter, but then recover to 7 percent growth in June 2021 and 6 percent in December 2021.
The scenario is based on “the relaxation of domestic activity restrictions over coming months, with most of these restrictions lifted by the end of the September quarter”.
Under this scenario, unemployment would peak at 10 percent in the June 2020 quarter, before creeping down to 6.5 percent in June 2022.
In an “upside scenario” where domestic restrictions could be eased faster, combined with greater public confidence in health outcomes, unemployment could return to 5 percent in “a couple of years”.
But if restrictions needed to be reimposed or household and business confidence remains low, unemployment would “drift down much more gradually”.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, seized on the figures, telling reporters in Canberra the sustained projected unemployment and fall in household incomes showed the economy would not “snap back” as suggested previously by Morrison.
Albanese, who is giving a headland speech on the post-coronavirus recovery on Monday, said the slump “requires a government response” and “ongoing government action in the economy”.
Morrison sidestepped two questions about whether he would guarantee economic supports would not be wound back.
Morrison confirmed that the second round of $750 payments would be sent out in July but said the government would take decisions “one step at a time” on the $130 billion jobkeeper wage subsidy and the coronavirus supplement that boosts the jobseeker allowance.
He noted both programs had a “legislative life” (six months), but said jobkeeper would be reviewed at the end of June.
“I can give them the certainty that I want them to be back in their jobs, where they don’t need it,” Morrison said.
“That’s what this plan is about. Not to keep people on income support from the taxpayer, but to have a wage that’s provided by a business that’s successful and earning again and going forward and creating a strong economy.”