Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said most state and territory leaders have recommitted to opening up the economy by December, but failed to secure an immediate agreement to lift border restrictions that are hampering the recovery.
The nation has fragmented along state lines, with many leaders barring travel from the two most-populous states of New South Wales and Victoria due to community transmission of Covid-19. That’s complicating efforts to steer the economy out of its first recession in almost 30 years.
Seven out of the eight state and territory leaders recommitted to dropping restrictions by Christmas, something that was originally envisaged by the end of July. The state of Western Australia, the powerhouse of the nation’s resources industry, was the holdout.
“I will seek to bring states and territories together as best as I can to ensure we’re all heading in the same direction,” Morrison said after a meeting of state and territory leaders Friday. “Not everyone has to get on the bus for the bus to leave the station.”
The travel restrictions are smashing the tourism industry that’s already wilting from international borders being closed. They are also causing chaos for people in towns straddling state borders, who need to regularly cross for work or to access medical care. There is also a human cost, with local media reporting on people who have been denied permission to travel interstate to visit dying relatives.
There are growing calls from the business community, including Qantas Airways Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce, to lift the restrictions.
Morrison has been pressing for the states to agree on a definition of Covid “hot spots” to enable borders to reopen but allow more targeted controls on travel. But they are yet to reach an accord on how such a system would work.
South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria agreed Friday on an agricultural code to allow easier movement for farm workers. Leaders also agreed Australia should increase the weekly cap on citizens and permanent residents allowed to fly home from overseas, with Tasmania state saying it could help with quarantine arrangements.
Morrison said he had spoken with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about the “hot spot” concept, and that once arrangements had been agreed, New Zealanders would be able to visit Australia.
“If there’s no Covid in Christchurch,” he said, referring to the New Zealand South Island city, there’s no reason residents “can’t come to Sydney. And that will mean, I think, an important boost for our tourist economy.”
Despite the lack of concrete progress Friday, Morrison tried to sound upbeat and stressed the importance of finding sustainable ways to cope with the crisis.
“It’s not just about now till December,” he said. “In the absence of a vaccine, we may have to live this way for years, and we need it to be sustainable and workable for as long as possible.”