© Provided by The GuardianPhotograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
The prime minister has rebuffed calls for a swifter reopening of the borders, saying Australians understand the government taking a "cautious approach" that will see a gradual easing of restrictions.
Following calls from the New South Wales government for a clear timetable for reopening linked to vaccination targets, Scott Morrison said on Monday that current border restrictions would remain in place, with a "sliding scale" towards reopening.
"Australians by and large share the view that Australia has done incredibly well throughout the course of the pandemic and we have been able to not only save lives but save livelihoods as well, and Australians want to see that continue," Morrison said.
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"I think they understand the importance of a cautious approach when it comes to maintaining our border arrangements.
"Now those border arrangements, it's not one day the borders are open, one day the borders are closed. That's not how it works. There's a sliding sort of scale here," the prime minister said.
"But the key thing is the overall border arrangements - they remain in place until it's safe to do anything different."
The budget, released last week, assumes that Australia's borders will remain closed until mid-2022, at which point a "gradual return of temporary and permanent migrants is assumed to occur".
Before then, the government is assuming that other than "small, phased programs" of international students, the rate of international arrivals will be constrained by state and territory quarantine caps.
Liberal MPs Dave Sharma, Tim Wilson and Jason Falinski are calling for the borders to open faster than the mid-2022 budget target, saying the vaccination rollout should allow an easing of restrictions.
Amid criticism of the slow vaccine rollout, the government is also under pressure to do more to repatriate Australians stranded overseas, including from India, from where flights resumed on Saturday following the lifting of the travel ban from the virus-ravaged country.
Morrison flagged the government was currently considering how to implement the "next steps" towards the reopening of Australia's borders, including the easing of travel and quarantine restrictions for vaccinated Australians, allowing entry to foreign students and workers, and a potential travel bubble with Singapore. © Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAPScott Morrison says the government faces many 'practical challenges' in easing Australia's travel restrictions, and changes will happen 'incrementally'.
But he warned there remained many "practical challenges" facing the government as it sought to move towards an easing of travel restrictions, and any restrictions would be removed "incrementally".
"But right now it's not safe to be flicking the switch on those."
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The federal government has been resisting calls from Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia for the commonwealth to build quarantine facilities to take the pressure off the state-run hotel system, which has suffered from regular outbreaks of Covid-19.
Victoria wants the federal government to fund a 500-bed cabin-style facility north of Melbourne, which could be scaled up to 3,000 beds, while Queensland is pushing a privately-owned quarantine camp near Toowoomba's Wellcamp airport.
On Monday, Morrison dismissed the Wellcamp proposal but said the government was seriously considering the Victorian proposal, along with a separate push to use additional quarantine facilities in the Northern Territory currently housing US marines.
Earlier, the NSW premier, Gladys Berejikilian, said the state government wanted borders open as "soon as possible", saying the cost to NSW of closures was $1.5bn a month.
"If we get the majority of our population vaccinated, well, then we can think about opening our international borders, and that's what New South Wales works really hard to achieve," Berejikilian said.
"And I hope that if the vaccine rollout is better than anticipated, that date can be brought forward, but we appreciate the community has concerns about safety, as do we."
A Guardian Essential poll has found strong support for border closures, but a growing number of people are calling for an end to Australia's "fortress" mentality.
Liberal MP Jason Falinski said on Monday that vaccinated Australians should be able to travel freely.
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"It doesn't need to be that way," he told Seven's Sunrise program on Monday. "We spent a lot of money keeping families safe, we don't want to keep them apart.
"Instead of playing to people's worst fears, we should be playing to people's best hopes."
The call comes as Australia's troubled vaccination program enters its next phase, with people aged over 50 now able to get the AstraZeneca vaccine from the GP network.
More than 3 million Australians have now been vaccinated, but some of the most vulnerable are still waiting.
Latest figures show that about 15% of aged care residents are still waiting for their jabs, while on Monday it was revealed that only a fraction of those living in residential disability care have been vaccinated - 4%.