Australia will halve the number of international arrivals it accepts after Covid outbreaks put half the population in lockdown this week.
The country’s strict border rules have only allowed Australians and people with exemptions to enter.
From 14 July, Australia will accept just over 3,000 people a week – a measure likely to last until next year.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the cuts would reduce pressure on the quarantine system.
Virus leaks from hotel quarantine – which is mandatory for all arrivals – have been the source of numerous outbreaks across the country.
“Simply reducing the caps doesn’t necessarily provide a fail safe but because of the particular virulency of the Delta strain, it is believed that is a prudent action while we remain in this suppression phase of the virus,” Mr Morrison said.
The Australian government has faced criticism for its strict border policies and the new arrival caps will make it even more difficult for many to return home.
To mitigate some of the cuts, Mr Morrison said the number of repatriation flights for Australians wanting to fly home would be increased. It would also begin trialling home quarantine arrangements for vaccinated travellers.
Mr Morrison indicated that arrival limits would not be lifted again until most Australians have been vaccinated – a goal that won’t be achieved until next year.
The new rules come after outbreaks of the highly infectious Delta variant plunged seven cities – including Sydney, Brisbane and Perth – into lockdowns over the past week.
The country has recorded about 250 cases, with most tied to a cluster in Sydney, its largest city. Sydney’s five million residents are under a stay-at-home order until 9 July.
The outbreak there stemmed from an unvaccinated driver who transported international arrivals, and the virus then spread in the community.
“We have seen breaches occur, predominantly as a result of infection control procedures and human error… those issues need to continue to be strengthened,” Mr Morrison said.
The outbreaks in five states and territories marked the most widespread transmission of the virus in Australia this year.
It also highlighted the nation’s slow vaccine rollout, with less than 8% of adults fully vaccinated.
A ‘pathway’ out
The Delta outbreaks prompted emergency talks between the prime minister and state and territory governments.
On Friday, following a meeting of all government leaders, Mr Morrison announced a new timeline for Australians on “the pathway out of Covid” which included the international arrival cuts.
He said while the country had focused on the suppression of the virus, it would ultimately move to manage Covid “as an infectious disease like any other in our community”.
However, he said Australia remains in the first phase of suppressing Covid spread. A shift to later stages – including a move away from lockdowns – would require most Australians to be vaccinated.
Australia is relying on the AstraZeneca and the Pfizer vaccines to immunise its population.
Delays in the rollout have largely been attributed to widespread hesitancy over the AstraZeneca shot, and a lack of Pfizer supplies.
Mr Morrison reiterated on Friday that all Australians would be able to receive their first dose by the end of 2021.