It is highly unlikely the nation will return to zero Covid cases despite strict lockdowns attempting to control the spread of the Delta variant, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says.
Speaking on ABC's Insiders on Sunday morning, the Prime Minister also said the use of lockdowns to suppress the virus after the nation hits a 70 per cent vaccination rate would do more harm than good.
Mr Morrison's comments follow growing discord among states and territories over a national deal to reopen the country and restrict the use of lockdowns after the nation reaches vaccination targets.
He said while it was unlikely there would be a return to zero infections - as states and territories had earlier achieved through lockdowns and other restrictions - the goal was to suppress rather than eliminate Covid.
Mr Morrison described lockdowns as an unsustainable method of fighting the virus, saying they would do more harm than good after vaccination rates reached 70 and 80 per cent.
"You can't go with lockdowns forever, and at some point you need to make that gear change, and that's done at 70 per cent because that's where we're advised from the medical science, that you can make that gear change," he said.
"Once you do that, then you can move into focusing on the public health issues of hospitalisation and serious illness."
The Prime Minister said Covid case numbers were "not the whole story".
States and territories are disputing the reopening plan and argue it was based on Doherty Institute modelling assuming the nation would reduce restrictions while it had low case numbers.
The ACT government has also said it will aim to reopen once it reaches higher than national vaccine targets, amid concerns other states could move to relax restrictions before achieving effective protection against the coronavirus.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said yesterday the higher vaccination coverage would better protect the Canberra community, which could not be sealed off from the rest of the country.
"When the nation hits 70 per cent, I want Canberra to be closer to 80 [per cent]. And when the nation hits 80 [per cent], I really want Canberra to be closer to 90 [per cent]. We will do everything we can to achieve that," he said.
Mr Morrison on Sunday said reopening the nation with high infection rates would not ultimately change case numbers later.
The Covid crisis escalated further on Sunday as NSW recorded 830 new daily cases - the highest recorded in any state or territory since the pandemic - and Victoria announced 65 new cases after sending its regions into lockdown.
Under a national reopening plan agreed at national cabinet earlier this month, a state or territory can ease restrictions once it reaches a 70 per cent vaccination rate, and when the national average hits the same figure. Once the figures reach 80 per cent, lockdowns would be limited even further.
The director of epidemiology at the Doherty Institute, Jodie McVernon, told Sky News on Sunday that the original plan envisaged low or minimal transmission for the country to be opened up at 70 and 80 per cent vaccination rates.
Professor McVernon said with a high caseload it was not possible to have a "freedom day" and restrictions had to be gradually eased.
But Mr Morrison said the government had received advice from the Doherty Institute that the infection rates did not alter the conclusion of "where case numbers arrive".
"Once you go into the next phase of course case numbers will rise, you have an unvaccinated population whether you start at 30 cases or 100 cases or more than that, you still have an unvaccinated population," he said.
The Prime Minister on Sunday also supported the use of lockdowns as Covid cases grew in NSW and Victoria, and continued emerging in the ACT.
"Right now, of course we need to make the lockdowns effective, we need to suppress the virus as best we can, and we need for people to isolate, stay at home, get tested and of course get vaccinated."
In an opinion piece published by News Corp on Saturday, Mr Morrison said the nation must move its focus from Covid infection rates to the number of people becoming seriously ill and requiring hospitalisation.
"This is how we manage all other infectious diseases," he said.
"The data shows that after an Astra Zeneca or Pfizer vaccination, you're 86 to 87 per cent less likely to end up in hospital or an ICU, and while figures aren't confirmed about how much vaccination reduces transmission, the evidence from the recent outbreak in Sydney is really strong.
"Rising cases need not impact our plan to reopen, and reopen as soon we can."
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