Health Minister Greg Hunt has refused to guarantee Australia’s borders will open even if the whole country has been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Australia’s borders have been shut since March 2020 and will remain closed until at least the middle of June, leaving more than 36,000 Australians trapped overseas, unable to return due to caps on the number of quarantine spaces.
International borders might not open even if whole country is vaccinated, G. Hunt
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The closure also bans citizens from leaving the country unless they have an exemption or are travelling to New Zealand.
Mr Hunt suggested at a news conference in Canberra on Tuesday the international border closures could last much longer and stay in place even if the entire population had been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“Vaccination alone is no guarantee that you can open up,” Mr Hunt said.
“If the whole country were vaccinated, you couldn’t just open the borders.
“We still have to look at a series of different factors: transmission, longevity [of vaccine protection] and the global impact – and those are factors which the world is learning about,” he said.
Mr Hunt said that it would be a joint decision made by the chief ministers, premiers and Prime Minister on whether Australia would ever depart from its zero-tolerance of the virus and said the country was “progressively” opening up under its current approach.
Lucy Morrell from strandedaussies.com said Mr Hunt’s words left her worried for the future of those stuck overseas.
“When I hear statements like those made by Mr Hunt … I feel a fear I hope is irrational,” she said.
“The fear is that citizens and permanent residents still stranded overseas because they’re neither rich enough for business class tickets nor poor enough for DFAT assistance, will be left stateless indefinitely.
“As Anzac Day approaches, it’s anathema to think we’re leaving Australians behind in a pandemic, but the people experiencing it can’t come to any other conclusion.”
Health experts have repeatedly said that it was impossible for the world to eradicate COVID-19 as Australia and New Zealand had done and said the virus would be endemic around the world and circulate like the flu.
Dr Omar Khorshid, federal president of the Australian Medical Association, encouraged all Australians to get vaccinated, but he said the closed borders and quarantine regime had been a key part of Australia’s response to the coronavirus.
“One of the reasons Australia has been able to manage this virus better than almost any other nation is that we have been able to control our borders and this will remain the case until we are certain that Australians will be safe,” he said.
“Getting vaccinated is the best way for all Australians to avoid getting seriously ill or dying from COVID-19. This virus does not just affect the elderly – evidence out of France shows that young people are being hospitalised due to COVID.”
Deaths and cases in countries with high vaccination rates have collapsed but have not been eliminated.
On Monday, Britain, recorded 13 new COVID-related deaths and 3568 infections, down from a peak of more than 68,000 new cases recorded on January 8 and 1361 deaths on January 19 – the country’s highest single-day death toll.
Australia has opened a travel bubble with New Zealand, which also has a zero-tolerance COVID-19 stance. But travel paths with larger countries like Singapore and Japan, which have low rates of COVID-19, are yet to materialise.
Innes Willox from employer association AI Group said while vaccines might be an “imperfect solution” to the pandemic, but remained the “best hope” to keep Australia’s economy “moving and connected”.
“Without an effective vaccine program we would have no chance of reopening our national border to skilled migrants, students and tourists and our states would continue their lazy approach of needlessly shutting their borders to cover the inadequacies of their tracking and tracing systems,” Mr Willox said.
“Vaccines at least gives us a chance of reconnecting with what will still be a very different world.
“That’s why it’s important that our vaccine rollout moves along at a good clip. Without it, we risk being trapped in our gilded cage for many years to come.”
Simon Westaway, executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council, said industry had expected vaccinations would lead to the economy opening up fully.
“A successfully delivered national COVID vaccine program would clearly be a core foundation to enable a reopening of our international border to more countries and visitor cohorts beyond New Zealand,” Mr Westaway said.
“This would include nations with strong health and tracing systems across Asia through to re-engaging with key global markets including students and international working holidaymakers and backpackers.
“Industry has always understood it to be a necessary downpayment in a future COVID economy.”