Scott Morrison has declared his “hope” that COVID-19 border restrictions will be eased by Christmas but warned Australians it was unlikely that normal movement without any restrictions will be restored by summer.
The prospect could stop thousands of Australians spending Christmas with relatives and loved ones and comes amid concerns that the Queensland border closures, while popular with voters, are not based on clear medical advice.
Just months ago, the Prime Minister had hoped the border restrictions would be lifted by July, a hope that now seems abandoned in the wake of the second wave in Victoria.
At the weekend, WA Premier Mark McGowan suggested the border might be closed until the end of this year or even longer suggesting the border closures could remain in force in some form for a year.
Asked about the comments the Prime Minister was at pains not to criticise the decision.
“Well, we have no quarrel with Mr McGowan on these matters,’’ Mr Morrison said on Monday.
“I mean, we think any of these border arrangements, as I’ve written to him, should be done collaboratively.
“We should continue to assess what the medical situation is and make very transparent decisions about those matters and I think that aids its constitutionality. And we’re working with the McGowan government to that end.”
The Prime Minister has adopted a diplomatic approach in recent weeks particularly towards Western Australia’s hugely popular border lockdown.
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Since the second wave of coronavirus cases in Victoria, the Morrison Government has walked away from joining a High Court challenge about the border restrictions and adopted a more conciliatory approach.
The Prime Minister said he wasn’t jumping the gun on what might happen with borders later this year or next year.
“But I’ve been very careful not to get too far ahead on what might happen in December or March. Of course, we’ve extended JobKeeper out to the end of March, but I think we have to take these issues one step at a time.”
But Mr Morrison said he was still hopeful some restrictions could be lifted by Christmas.
“And if circumstances change and certainly if they change in the way we hoped they would, well, I would welcome it by Christmas, if it were possible,’’ he said.
“But I think it’s unlikely that we were able to move back to a restriction-free society. But I doubt that is going to happen. I doubt the medical position will enable that. And so you’ve just got to follow the medical evidence on all of these, whether it’s borders or whether it’s the restrictions on trade or of local businesses or whatever it happens to be.
“It’s important that we just, you know, look and test, interrogate the medical evidence and make decisions based on that and nothing else and be transparent about it.”
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Around 100 Canberrans also remain stranded at the New South Wales/Victorian border because of a last-minute decision late at night to revoke their permission to drive through the state to get to the ACT.
Asked if New South Wales should reverse this decision, the Prime Minister said he was hopeful the NSW Premier and ACT chief minister could resolve the issue.
“Well, these are one of the challenges of when borders are put in place between state jurisdictions,’’ he said.
“At least in the case of New South Wales and Victoria, there’s been quite a lot of co-operation, certainly between New South Wales and Victoria. And I think it’s important for the ACT administration to be engaging with New South Wales to try and resolve those issues.”
New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory have all announced border restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And while some exemptions for cross-border travel allow for cross-border movement from New South Wales to Queensland, Victoria and South Australia for essential travel, workforce movements, freight, and specific compassionate grounds, travellers need to seek permits and approvals.
The Prime Minister was also questioned about increasingly strident criticisms of the Victorian Government’s bungled hotel quarantine scheme despite his claims “we are all in this together”.
Mr Morrison said it was ridiculous to suggest that supporting Victorians meant you could not make legitimate criticisms of where political leaders had gone wrong.
“I think that’s a little simplistic, with great respect,’’ he said.
“What my colleagues have done has simply said that there must be accountability for decisions that are made and a transparency in explaining what has occurred. I don’t find that an extraordinary position to take. Equally, it is important that as the Treasurer also said, that there is nothing to be gained in slanging matches between levels of government and I don’t believe he is engaged in that at all. And so we will continue to work constructively and positively with the Victorian government. But that does not provide me or the Victorian Premier or any other Premier or Chief Minister with a leave pass to scrutiny.
“That’s entirely appropriate. You’ll do your job. We’ll do ours. And I think the country’s stronger for that.”
There was some good news in Queensland where there was only one new case, a fortnight on from the border breach where two teenagers who travelled to Victoria and returned infected with COVID-19.
The person who was recently diagnosed was not linked to that event but was a returning international traveller in quarantine.
“We only have one new case but it’s an overseas acquired case in hotel quarantine. It’s excellent news for Queensland,’’ Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said.
“Today was a very important day. And hopefully the news today will also give Queenslanders that added confidence, especially as we head to the people’s long weekend here in the southeast, that people will go out, they’ll support the tourism operators, they’ll support the cafes and the restaurants, and the businesses, right across Queensland, because everyone needs that help.”