Opposition leader Peter Dutton has accused the federal government of “lacking a plan” after it emerged Australia’s Chief Medical Officer advised against pre-departure COVID-19 tests for arrivals from China.
Dutton said the response was “panicked” and argued Labor was “making it up as they go along” leading to “chaos and confusion”.
It comes after the federal government performed a U-turn on Monday and said those arriving from China would be required to show proof they didn’t currently have the virus.
However, on Monday night, it emerged that Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, was strongly against the restrictions, which he said were “disproportionate to risk”.
“Based on available information, and in the absence of a specific threat from a variant with increased pathogenicity and immune escape, I do not believe that there is sufficient public health rationale to impose any restriction or additional requirements on travellers from China,” Professor Kelly’s advice read.
Despite the revelations, Treasurer Jim Chalmers defended the decision and hinted it was influenced by similar moves made by countries including the UK, US and Italy.
“It is not an especially onerous requirement that people have a negative test when they come here from that part of the world,” Dr Chalmers told Sky News.
“The Chief Medical Officers are people we work with closely. We respect their advice. Of course, one of the points that they’ve been making is we need to do better when it comes to surveillance of people coming to the country. There’s an element of uncertainty about the data coming out of China.
“So for all of those reasons, we’ve taken this decision out of an abundance of caution consistent with what’s happening around the world in other countries with which we compare ourselves.”
As yet, there have still been no details as to whether the changes would affect transit passengers or whether a PCR or RAT test would be preferred.
Health Minister Mark Butler even admitted to ABC’s Radio National that there was “no evidence right now” of any new variants in China.
“And the evidence does suggest that the main driver of this very large wave in China is a variant of Omicron,” he said.
“It’s a variant that we’re familiar with. It’s been in Australia for several months.”
However, Butler argued that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had pointed to a lack of information from China that would allow scientists to spot the emergence of variants that could develop.
“As well, what we’ll be doing is looking to introduce wastewater testing from aeroplanes that land in Australia,” he said.
“That’s an Australian innovation that’s been picked up by America and some other countries.
“That again gives us a good line of sight, if there are COVID cases coming into Australia, what the variants are in and very early information about the possibility of a new variant emerging as well.”
There are currently few airlines flying commercially between China and Australia, with Qantas not adding the country to its ongoing network plan.
In July 2022, vaccine mandates for international travellers were also removed.