The Morrison government says the entire population could be vaccinated for COVID-19 by the end of next year and international travel revived, as the states eased restrictions on crowd numbers and reopened their borders, fuelling optimism of a faster 2021 economic recovery.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there was no reason for premiers to shut down their economies again, after a review into the states' contact tracing systems found they were robust enough to stay on top of virus outbreaks and avoid a repeat of Victoria's failures.
With coronavirus cases surging across the US, Europe and parts of Asia, Mr Morrison ruled out softening the mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine for returned travellers or introducing further travel bubbles with countries before the end of the year, to minimise the risk of importing the virus.
Universities' hopes of a revival for Australia's third-largest export sector have been dashed for now, with Mr Morrison saying the return of foreign students would be delayed for the foreseeable future because of capacity limits on hotel quarantine. There are more than 35,000 stranded Australians who want to return home.
"Our priorities must be to look after Australian citizens and residents first. Now, because of the deteriorating situation in other parts of the world ... we are seeing more Australians than ever," Mr Morrison said.
Mr Morrison said assessments by health experts were that allowing people to quarantine at home or or campuses were "not considered options that we can safely take on".
As Queensland and South Australia announced a further round of easing restrictions, all states and territories except Western Australia reaffirmed their commitment to remove border closures by Christmas at Friday's national cabinet meeting.
Mr Morrison said NSW was "battle hardened" on reopening its economy, setting the example for other states.
"In other states opening up, I'd encourage them to push through like NSW did, because the task is to reopen safely and then to stay safely open," the PM said.
All of the vaccines are mildly ahead of anticipated schedule and that's good news for Australians and its good news for the world.
— Greg Hunt, Health Minister
"By staying safely open you are giving confidence to businesses, to people in jobs, to people that make decisions about their future and what they're going to do."
Commonwealth Bank of Australia economists upgraded their economic outlook, noting "there are genuine reasons to believe the domestic economic recovery is going to be strong over the next two years".
“An unprecedented level of fiscal and monetary policy stimulus coupled with an expected drawdown in accumulated savings and the further easing of COVID‑related restrictions will support economic growth and job creation,” CBA economist Gareth Aird said.
The bank tips the economy to shrink 3.3 per cent in 2020, followed by a rebound in GDP of 4.2 per cent in 2021 and 3.8 per cent in 2022.
Despite calls from business for WA to join the other states in lifting all border closures by Christmas, Premier Mark McGowan was standing firm.
"Christmas is important, but the health of Western Australians is more important, and setting up an artificial deadline for Christmas I don’t think is wise," he said.
Australia's homegrown coronavirus vaccine, under development at the University of Queensland and CSL, will begin phase three clinical trials before the end of the year after few adverse reactions in initial tests, with potential delivery likely in the third quarter of 2021.
This follows positive early results for AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines, which the Australian government has inked deals for.
"So all of the vaccines are mildly ahead of anticipated schedule and that's good news for Australians and its good news for the world," Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
With the government sticking to its timetable to vaccinate all Australians by the end of 2021, Mr Hunt said the more people who were immunised would lead to greater internal freedoms such as easing social distancing requirements, as well as restarting international travel, including for foreigners to come to Australia.
"We would want people coming in to be clear that either they're vaccinated, or they will have to go through hotel quarantine. Because the disease won't disappear from the world overnight; this is something that we have to be honest about," he said.
The overriding conclusion from our report is there is good reason to be confident in the contact tracing and outbreak management systems.
— Alan Finkel, chief scientist
Chief scientist Alan Finkel's report into contact tracing and outbreak management found it was possible to have a “mobile” and “healthy” community, while having an “active” economy.
A key theme among the Finkel report’s 54 recommendations was that states and territories should further improve the use of technology to more effectively track, manage and share information about people with the virus and their contacts.
Even without a COVID-19 vaccine, the combination of rapid testing, contact tracing, isolation and outbreak management would allow Australia to have a "prosperous" society, Dr Finkel said.
"Speaking of confidence, perhaps the overriding conclusion from our report is that there is good reason to be confident in the contact tracing and outbreak management systems in Australia," he said.
"States would open their borders if they're confident in the other states and their own ability to deal with any outbreaks or cases that occur."
He said Victoria’s contact tracing had “dramatically improved” after “not working well” three to four months ago.
The report recommended a new “data exchange”, whereby states would share contact tracing data from airlines, passenger ships and health authorities, including people’s phone numbers, addresses, case interviews and diagnostic test results – without infringing on people’s privacy.
All states should also adopt immediate digital database recording of virus interviews and contacts, rather than using paper records that can cause delays and errors.
Modelling for the review shows that reducing to less than 48 hours the duration from patient testing to quarantine of their close contacts substantially lowers community transmission.
Within that national timeframe, the panel recommended that test results should be available in less than 24 hours of a sample being taken to maximise the likelihood people will isolate while awaiting results.
Mr Morrison said Australia would provide the contact tracing and outbreak management report to the Trump administration and US president-elect Joe Biden, after the latter expressed interest in learning from Australia’s success in fighting the virus.
Victoria chalked up its 14th day in a row of no new cases and deaths, while NSW reported no new locally acquired cases for the sixth day running.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced a raft of restrictions on crowd numbers would be eased in the Sunshine State, including allowing 200 people and dancing at weddings and no cap on outdoor stadiums, ensuring a full house at next week's State of Origin decider.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said the hard border with Victoria would be removed from December 1, provided there were no flare-ups of COVID-19 cases in Victoria."The risk is diminished,'' Mr Marshall said.
While Mr McGowan continues to require NSW and Victorian residents to hotel quarantine for 14 days, WA on Friday night went ahead with allowing visitors from the other states to arrive without being isolated, subject to screening.