Health Minister Greg Hunt has said that international flights could be paused to countries that experience severe COVID-19 outbreaks in the future, which could see Australian travellers again stranded overseas.
It comes just days after the federal government confirmed that Australian citizens and residents would be able to travel internationally again from next month, for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
Speaking with ABC Radio Brisbane on Monday, Minister Hunt was asked whether the government would pause international travel to certain countries if they were to see a spike in COVID infections.
“There is the capacity to do that,” Minister Hunt said.
“For example in India, when we were seeing 14 per cent positive rates on the flights that were going into Howard Springs, we did [pause flights] for two weeks.
“It was controversial at the time. But after that, we were able to sure up the testing procedures that were occurring in another country with additional Australian measures, put in place those procedures, and it dropped from a positive rate of 14 per cent to under one per cent.
“So that was protecting the Howard Springs and the Northern Territory, and by definition, the rest of Australia. So there are no plans to do that, but there’s the capacity to do that.”
Minister Hunt noted that should future variants of the virus be more resistant to the COVID-19 vaccines, the government would consider closing international borders once more.
“But the general proposition is that you leave, you can travel, you can return if double vaccinated and you would go into home quarantine with appropriate testing,” he added.
The Health Minister also highlighted that Friday’s announcement by the Prime Minister was not a widespread return to overseas travel.
“This is for Australians who are fully vaccinated, to leave and to return, or Australians or permanent residents overseas to return if they haven’t come back yet,” he said.
“That’s the initial thing, so it’s not initially about opening up travel for other people from overseas. It starts with Australians who are fully vaccinated doing that. And so we’re not placing restrictions.
“There may be that there are individual cases of a mass outbreak, where we’re very concerned about a country, but the presumption is that you leave, you travel to your point of destination, and your protection is you come back double vaccinated and then into home quarantine for seven days with appropriate testing.”
On Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that fully vaccinated citizens and residents will be able to leave the country freely and return without hotel quarantine in November.
These new requirements, which will kick in once states hit 80 per cent double-dose inoculation, will see those arriving back in the country being asked to quarantine at home for seven days.
The government will also announce a number of quarantine-free travel bubbles in the coming weeks, which will see the country able to welcome tourists for the first time in 18 months.
“It’s time to give Australians their lives back,” said Prime Minister Morrison. “Let’s get vaccinated and get on with it.”
Speaking after a national cabinet meeting on Friday, the Prime Minister revealed firmer details on how Australia will open to the rest of the world in stages, which will eventually see all travel caps for vaccinated Australians removed to allow those abroad to return home easily.
Notably, travellers leaving or entering the country need to be vaccinated with a vaccine approved or recognised by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration.
Unvaccinated travellers or people jabbed with a non-recognised vaccine, will continue to be subject to 14-days hotel quarantine, however, will no longer require an exemption for travel.
Australian citizens and permanent residents who cannot be vaccinated – for example, children under 12 years or people with a medical condition – will be treated as vaccinated for the purposes of their travels, the government said.
Pre- and post-flight testing is expected to continue to be a requirement of international travel, however, it is not yet known exactly how.
The long-awaited vaccine passport for international travel is also set to be rolled out “in the coming weeks”.
The changes will only be permitted for states that achieve the 80 per cent vaccine target in their adult populations, meaning both Queensland and Western Australia – whose vaccine rates trail the rest of the country – could be required to wait until early December to reopen borders.