CANBERRA/SYDNEY (Reuters) -- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday announced an 18-month ban on Australians travelling abroad will be lifted from next month, easing one of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions imposed globally.
Reopening the international border for citizens and permanent residents will be linked to the establishment of home quarantine in Australia's eight states and territories, Morrison said, meaning that some parts of the country will reopen sooner than others.
The first phase of the plan will focus on citizens and permanent residents being allowed to leave Australia, with further changes expected to permit foreign travelers to enter the country.
"It's time to give Australians their lives back. We've saved lives," Morrison said during a televised media conference. "We've saved livelihoods, but we must work together to ensure that Australians can reclaim the lives that they once had in this country."
Morrison slammed the international border shut in March 2020. Since then, only a limited number of people have been granted a permit to leave the country for critical business or humanitarian reasons.
Citizens and permanent residents have been allowed to return from abroad, subject to quota limits and a mandatory 14-day quarantine period in a hotel at their own expense. There have also been a few high-profile exceptions granted for entry for business purposes, including Hollywood actors to film movies and TV shows.
Morrison said he expects the first home quarantine systems to be up and running in November, but the timetable will be set by individual states and territories.
He has previously said it wants all state and international borders reopened when the national vaccination rate for people aged over 16 reaches 80%, expected by the end of next month.
However, a Delta variant-fueled outbreak that has locked down the major cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra for weeks has divided state and territory leaders. Some presiding over virus-free parts of the country have indicated they will defy the federal plan.
Under the plan announced on Friday, Australians who are fully vaccinated will be able to travel abroad and complete a 7-day quarantine at home on their return. People who are not vaccinated will be required to undertake 14 days of quarantine at a hotel when they return.
Morrison said his government was working towards quarantine free travel with countries such as New Zealand when "safe to do so."
An Australian government source said plans were being discussed to allow foreign visitors to enter the country, but it was not possible to yet state a timetable.
Australia's strict border closure has been credited with keeping both fatalities and infections relatively low. It has recorded just over 107,000 COVID-19 cases and about 1,300 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The country on Friday reported 2,084 new COVID-19 cases, the bulk of which were detected in New South Wales and Victoria states. The results marked a small decline in case numbers from those reported one day earlier, but authorities warned against complacency.
Australia will also expand its list of authorized COVID-19 vaccines, allowing thousands of citizens and permanent residents still abroad to return via the home quarantine system, Morrison said.
Australia currently only recognizes vaccines produced by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. The source said China's Sinovac and Covishield, a version of AstraZeneca's vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India, would be added to the list.