Scott Morrison will meet premiers and chief ministers for what he has characterised as an “informal” meeting of the national cabinet after a surge in Omicron cases as Australians travel in preparation for their Christmas break.
The prime minister told reporters in Brisbane the unscheduled leaders meeting, likely on Wednesday, would “give everybody an update on the most recent information we have” and also enable the states and territories to share information.
While the leaders meeting self-evidently reflects the changing circumstances, Morrison played down the significance of the discussion. “We are looking forward to catching up, it’s not unusual we would be meeting more regularly with Omicron being where it is.”
The prime minister said the conversation would be a “good opportunity” to update each other on all the relevant public health information ahead of the Christmas break.
Morrison declared vaccination and booster shots remained the best protection against serious illness, and he said Australia needed to keep moving forward with easing of public health restrictions. But he said leaders would “keep fine-tuning and calibrating the things you need to do”.
“We have to keep moving forward with this,” Morrison said on Monday. “This is why Australians rolled up their sleeves, this is why Australians have worked so hard.”
“The cases will of course rise with the Omicron variant, what we will continue to work through with states and territories is making sure we manage the impact on the hospital system and the primary health network,” he said.
Asked whether he envisaged a return to lockdowns, with some European countries imposing new restrictions to suppress a new spike in infections, including a lockdown of all non-essential services in the Netherlands, Morrison said: “We will make our Australian way through this.”
“We always have. The situation in the northern hemisphere is different to Australia, they are not standing over there in the Netherlands in 34 degrees [heat]. It’s winter and people are more indoors, we know the virus does move differently in different seasons, so what’s important is people get their booster shots.”
Morrison said people eligible for boosters needed to get them. He said there were 13m doses in the country and “plenty of points of presence”.
“Anyone who is concerned and who is ready to have their booster shot, I would urge them to go and get it because that is the best defence against Omicron, particularly for insuring against serious illness, or what might require hospitalisation,” the prime minister said.
“That is the key advice we have received and if we do that, then we can keep our nerve, keep calm and carry on.”
There has been a significant surge in Omicron cases over recent days, which has prompted a debate among epidemiologists about whether public health restrictions, including mask mandates, need to be reintroduced in Australia.
On Monday New South Wales recorded 2,501 cases, Victoria 1,302, Queensland 59, the Australian Capital Territory 13, Tasmania three, and the South Australia premier, Steven Marshall, said there were about 100 new cases in his state.
The Northern Territory recorded three new cases and extended the Tennant Creek lockdown and mask mandate for Barkly region by 48 hours. Cases in Queensland are doubling about every 48 hours.
The New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, has thus far resisted calls to re-impose restrictions or mask mandates. On Monday, the premier told reporters he intended to treat people “like adults” and Australia had reached the time in the pandemic where “personal responsibility” needed to come to the fore.
But Perrottet also signalled things could change as new information came to hand: “As I have said, from the outset, we will always tailor our response to the circumstances that are in front of us.”
Asked whether he would advocate a mask mandate during his discussion with the premiers and chief ministers, Morrison said Australians had been told what to do for the last couple of years “and Australians have grown pretty tired of that”. He echoed the premier’s message about the importance of personal responsibility.
But he added: “We will do what we always do and take advice from the medical expert panel.” The prime minister also said there would be circumstances “where masks are commonsense”. He said he had worn a mask when he attended Christmas carols in his electorate on Sunday night.
On Sunday, the deputy chief medical officer, Sonya Bennett, noted that the new Omicron variant was highly transmissible: “We are seeing rapid escalation of case numbers around the globe, particularly in the UK, with the UK recording over 90,000 cases yesterday.”
Bennett said Omicron had a doubling time of around two days, “which is obviously concerning”. She urged people to consider wearing masks in crowded indoor settings. Bennett said people should not wait for a mask mandate before taking that precaution.
“My plea to the community is we don’t need to wait for mandates to tell us what is sensible to do,” Bennett said on Sunday. “That particularly applies to masks.”