The ACT government is under pressure to detail the path out of lockdown, after announcing a four-week extension to restrictions amid concern mystery COVID-19 cases were a risk to a largely unvaccinated population.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced the territory government would extend the lockdown after the ACT recorded 22 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, which included at least 13 cases active in the community while infectious.
The lockdown is now due to end on October 15, more than two months after it started, with a review of restrictions to be made in two weeks' time.
"This next month is a period of uncertainty. And the next few weeks will be challenging. What we are certain of, though, is that a highly vaccinated Canberra is a safer Canberra," Mr Barr said.
"This is the safest path forward, and it will lead to a safer Christmas, a safer summer holiday period, and a safer 2022."
Chief health officer Dr Kerryn Coleman said the decision to extend the lockdown had been difficult, but the risk to the community from unknown COVID-19 transmission sources was still high and she did not want the outbreak to worsen.
"When all of our businesses open, we want them to stay open. When our kids go back to school, I'd really like to be able to keep them at school. And when stay-at-home restrictions end, we'd really like them to stay that way this time round," Dr Coleman said.
Dr Coleman said in the meantime she did not want to raise false hope for Canberrans.
"My experience is that I don't want people to be working towards something that we aren't very sure about at this point in time," she said.
Mr Barr stopped short of confirming the ACT had abandoned a strategy of eliminating COVID-19 in the community, saying health authorities were working to reduce the number of cases infectious in the community.
"We will do our best to contain this virus. And we have put in place a set of measures that have been effective in avoiding a Sydney-like situation for Canberra," he said.
Minor changes will come into effect from 11.59pm on Friday to allow real estate agents to conduct in-person viewings of properties by appointment, recreational sport for five people and small businesses to have five people on site to operate click-and-collect services.
Year 12 students will return to schools from the start of term 4, with year 11 students to follow on October 18.
Students in preschool to year 10 will continue remote learning for at least four weeks of term 4, which is beyond the now-slated end of lockdown.
Education Minister Yvette Berry acknowledged parents' frustration at the announcement.
"I completely relate to the frustration, the emotional toll that it takes on families and young people, and that we will desperately want to see a return to some kind of normality," Ms Berry said.
"But we're just going to have to keep going for a little bit longer until it's safe for us to [return to schools]."
Business groups expressed frustration with what they deemed a lack of detail on a lockdown exit strategy.
ACT Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee said Canberrans would be angry and disappointed with Tuesday's announcement, which was a "slap in the face" for small business.
"The Chief Minister must be upfront with our community and provide some light at the end of the tunnel for our businesses; our parents and teachers; all Canberrans who deserve to know what a safe transition out of lockdown will look like," Ms Lee said.
Mr Barr said the ACT government would boost support available to businesses, and make investments in community support and mental health initiatives.
"The ACT government is currently finalising agreements with the Commonwealth treasurer to extend the jointly funded financial support programs for local businesses and the COVID disaster payments," he said.
Liberal Senator for Zed Seselja said the lockdown extension was "bitterly disappointing news" that "smashed the hope" of Canberrans.
"[Canberrans have] done their bit to comply and yet are now being told that this short, sharp seven-day lockdown will go for at least nine weeks," Senator Seselja said.
"This decision lacks compassion and it lacks balance."
However, Mr Barr defended the lockdown extension and plan to ease restrictions, saying the community was aware of the kinds of stepped measures that could be used from the path out of last year's lockdown.
"I didn't want to be in this position. We didn't want to be in this situation. If the virus had been controlled better in NSW, we would have been able to continue our more than year-long run of having no COVID in our community," he said.
Tens of thousands more Canberrans will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of the four-week lockdown extension.
"As the nation reaches the vaccination thresholds outlined in the national plan to transition Australia's COVID-19 response, we will be in a position to support the gradual easing of restrictions in the ACT," Mr Barr said.
"Based on the current vaccination trajectories, the nation is anticipated to reach 70 and 80 per cent effective vaccination milestones in mid October and early to mid November."
Nationally, 43.2 per cent of people aged 16 and over are fully vaccinated, while 52.1 per cent of people aged 16 and over are fully vaccinated in the ACT.
Mr Barr has previously said he was confident the ACT could achieve a vaccination rate of 95 per cent without relying on mandates or incentives.
The ACT entered lockdown at 5pm on August 12, for what was originally a seven-day period. The lockdown has now been extended three times.
There have been 528 cases associated with the ACT outbreak since August 12, including 314 people who have spent some time in the community while infectious across roughly 1000 exposure sites.
There are 53 cases with unknown sources of infection, and eight separate introductions of the Delta variant of COVID-19 into the ACT.
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