Lockdowns cast shadow over cabinet talks

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Australia’s leaders will meet on Friday with the nation’s two most densely populated states in lockdown.

National cabinet will try to end an ugly war of words that has escalated between premiers and the prime minister this week.

Payments for businesses to top-up the pay of workers who have to be stood down could be accessed sooner after Scott Morrison tweaked his initial plan to have states and territories get the same.

“We’re working with the problem, COVID evolves,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Sydney

Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews will argue for support paid for the five days of its current lockdown, not waiting a week to qualify.

“We are part of this nation and it’s needs-based – it’s not foreign aid, we are not a different country,” he said in Melbourne.

But Mr Morrison seems reluctant to change the seven-day eligibility criteria for federal support.

“If you’re going to go have a shorter lock down, fine. But the Commonwealth can’t just be in this position of providing a blank cheque to that. There needs to be a cost sharing for those earlier periods,” he told Sky News on Thursday night.

“That’s why I’m quite confident that we’ll come to a common sense arrangement.”

The prime minister, premiers and chief ministers will also receive an epidemiological update that may show the need for different responses to beat the rapidly spreading variant.

The highly infectious Delta variant outbreak in Sydney is nearing 1000 cases since it began in mid-June, with dozens hospitalised and some on ventilators.

Victoria now has 18 cases, sourced from NSW.

The sluggish vaccine rollout is expected to get a boost with more pharmacies to join also on the national cabinet agenda.

As the number of delivered vaccine doses rose to 9.63 million, the government revealed it was making progress on getting mRNA vaccines made locally, with an approach-to-market process closing on Friday.

However, Mr Morrison said there were still some issues around intellectual property held by Pfizer and Moderna which needed to be sorted out.

There’s currently a glut of locally made AstraZeneca because of expert medical advice it be only for over 60s.

This was because of the risk of rare but potentially fatal blood clots linked to AstraZeneca.

But Sydney’s situation meant ATAGI again updated its advice, saying younger people in outbreak areas should consider the AstraZeneca jab if Pfizer isn’t available.

The recommended wait time between AstraZeneca doses was also cut from 12 weeks to between four and eight.

Sydney is set to enter its fourth week of stay-at-home orders, while Victoria began a snap five-day lockdown at midnight.

“I am not prepared to avoid a five-day lockdown now and find myself in a five-week or five-month lockdown,” Mr Andrews said.

Tasmania has shut its border to Victoria in response to a growing COVID-19 outbreak on the mainland state.

Queensland Health is waiting to see if three new coronavirus cases have seeded other infections, something that could send the southeast of the state into another lockdown.

South Australia is also enforcing tough border restrictions for Victoria and tighter local coronavirus rules as interstate case numbers continue to rise.

The Victoria-New Zealand travel bubble is on hold and quarantine-free travel with NSW remains paused.

New Zealand COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the latest pause will run for at least four days and be reviewed on Monday.

“Given the ongoing level of uncertainty around transmission in Melbourne, this is the right action to take.”

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