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Transit passengers excluded from China test rules

written by Adam Thorn | January 4, 2023

Rob Finlayson shot this Cathay Pacific 777-300ER in Sydney (resized)

Passengers transiting through China won’t be required to provide a negative COVID-19 test when they arrive in Australia.

The federal government made the announcement on Tuesday after strong lobbying from the Australian Airports Association. The exemption covers Hong Kong, Macau and even mainland China, but checks will be required to be monitored by a medical professional if using a RAT, rather than PCR, test.

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, later that day, 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.


China is set to fully open its border by axing quarantine on 8 January, and the new rules will come into effect on 5 January.

On Wednesday, the federal opposition continued to question the handling of the new restrictions, with Nationals leader David Littleproud demanding Health Minister Mark Butler “come out of hiding”.

“This government seems to think … they’re not going to give an explanation,” Mr Littleproud said. “If there is a reason, we’re all ears, and I think even the Chinese would be all ears.

“We’re saying if Mark Butler wants to step up and come out from hiding … then I’m sure he’ll be able to give a cogent argument as to why they’ve got to this decision contrary to the Chief Medical Officer.”

It came after Opposition leader Peter Dutton similarly accused the federal government of “lacking a plan” and “making it up as they go along”.

Despite the criticism, Treasurer Jim Chalmers earlier defended the change of stance 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.”

The shake-up was already controversial, with many epidemiologists arguing testing would make little difference to a virus now epidemic in Australia.

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.”

Butler argued that the World Health Organisation 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.

Australia first opened its border in November 2021 to residents and citizens before following through to students, backpackers, skilled migrants and then tourists.

In July 2022, vaccine mandates for international travellers were also removed.

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