Australia’s international border restrictions are likely to be eased via a Europe-style traffic light system that will first be trialled on overseas students, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on the weekend.
However, the PM also said any large-scale opening would not happen until the country has a better idea of the spread of variants of COVID-19 and their effectiveness with vaccines.
“The jury is out on that and it will be a while, I think, before the epidemiologists can have greater clarity on that. We have to be patient for the evidence and the science,” PM Morrison said.
The federal government’s continued downplaying of any immediate opening to international borders comes days after yet another shift in policy to now prioritise administering the Pfizer vaccine to under 60s rather than the Oxford vaccine that the country has in far greater supply. The British-created jab has been linked to blood clots in a very small number of recipients.
Talking to The Weekend Australian, PM Morrison said the government would spend the next six months monitoring how vaccines “protect against serious illness in real-time”, pointing out that hospitalisations in the UK are now rising due to the spread of the Delta variant.
“In Europe, they have a system which works green light, red light. And the green light is if you’ve had it, so you have the antibodies, if you’ve had a PCR test within the relevant period or you’re vaccinated. These things feed back into other databases to enable the border clearance,” he said.
The Prime Minister added that doing it with overseas students would be “a good first run-around” to prove the system.
“It’s just sort of quite practical homework to have something ready in the event you got to that next point. But there was no indication of time frame, no indication of commitment to a time frame, just let’s get this thing working really well,” he said.
PM Morrison’s comments on Sunday came a day after Trade Minister Dan Tehan said the country was in “no rush to open the borders” and any opening would “largely depend on how these various variants play out”.
“It has been made very clear we will only create a bubble with Singapore when it is safe to do so and in the meantime we are looking at what would be the processes that would allow that to be as safe as possible,” said Minister Tehan.
The update comes after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s budget last month hinted borders wouldn’t open until halfway through next year, forcing Qantas to push back its plan to restart long-haul flights from 31 October to December.
The budget papers read, “Inbound and outbound international travel is expected to remain low through to mid-2022, after which gradual recovery in international tourism is assumed to occur.”
Qantas said in a statement it remains “optimistic that additional bubbles will open once Australia’s vaccine rollout is complete to countries who, by then, are in a similar position, but it’s difficult to predict which ones at this stage”.
It also comes after NSW revealed this month it hopes to welcome international students in the next six to eight weeks under a pilot plan set to be rubber-stamped by the federal government.
The state’s Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, said the program would see 250 students per fortnight quarantine in student accommodation, rising to 500 per fortnight by the end of the year.
Flights will initially be chartered before transitioning to commercial services.
The move is hugely significant for international aviation given, currently, only Australian citizens, permanent residents and a limited number of skilled visa holders are allowed to enter Australia.
Those who do enter are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine period, for which they have to pay up to $3,000.
Perrottet insisted that “not one returning Australian” will lose out on a plane ticket as a result of the plan.
“We will be running this alongside the 3,000 returning Australians that come into our hotel quarantine system every week,” he said. “This is a big win for the NSW economy.
While numbers fluctuate, NSW is currently taking the vast bulk of returned citizens, with Sydney quarantine hotels now accepting 3,000 entrants per week. The next highest is Queensland, taking 1,000.