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Australia to end travel ban in pivot to living with Covid-19

4 min read

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said travel restrictions would be dropped for fully vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents, who would be able to leave and return to the country without seeking permission as is required now. They will also be allowed to quarantine at home for seven days, while current rules require returning travelers to pay thousands of dollars to quarantine at government-run hotels or camps for two weeks.

Travel restrictions for international students, skilled migrants and eventually tourists would be eased later. Mr. Morrison said that could happen next year, possibly sooner, for some of those groups.

“The time has come to give Australians their lives back,” Mr. Morrison said.

Australia has largely closed its border to tourists and banned its citizens from leaving for the past 18 months, though people who needed to travel urgently for personal or work reasons could apply for an exemption. The government also capped how many citizens could return, given limited capacity in its hotel-quarantine system, making it difficult for some expatriates to get home. An experiment with a travel bubble with New Zealand has been frequently disrupted by Covid-19 outbreaks.

Mr. Morrison said that easing the border closure is in line with the country’s four-stage Covid-19 exit strategy, which the leaders of Australian states agreed to earlier in the year. The plan calls for the resumption of international travel to begin in the third stage, when 80% of the adult population is fully vaccinated.

Mr. Morrison said that nearly 80% of the adult population has received one vaccine dose and that 55% have received two. The 80% fully vaccinated threshold is expected to be reached next month, triggering the restart of international travel, he said.

Unvaccinated Australians would still be subject to restrictions even when the 80% threshold is reached, including being required to quarantine in government hotels and a cap on how many are allowed back into the country.

Travel restrictions might ease sooner in some parts of the country than others, based on the pace of vaccination and whether state leaders feel comfortable opening their borders. The leaders of Queensland and Western Australia states, where there is little community transmission of the virus, have indicated they may wait longer to allow unrestricted travel until even more people can be vaccinated.

Health experts credited the strict border closures with helping to prevent the spread of the virus early in the pandemic. But border closures haven’t been able to fully stop the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus. Delta outbreaks over the past few months have infected tens of thousands of Australians and killed dozens. Australia’s two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, and its capital, Canberra, are battling outbreaks and are locked down to buy time for more people to get vaccinated.

Australia’s vaccine rollout got off to a slow start because of supply-chain issues and concerns about rare blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine, which unlike others could be manufactured in Australia. But the rollout has gained pace in recent weeks after Australia got extra doses of the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine from countries such as Poland, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

Australia’s travel ban led to billions of dollars in losses at its airlines, including major carrier Qantas Airways Ltd, while the country’s No. 2 carrier, Virgin Australia, filed for the equivalent of bankruptcy last year. Thousands of airline employees are still furloughed. The ban also ravaged Australia’s tourist sector, a major industry in some parts of the country.

The border reopening is coming sooner than expected. Qantas had been selling international tickets for mid-December, assuming that border restrictions wouldn’t ease until then. On Friday, the airline said it would bring forward the restart of flights from Sydney to London and Los Angeles to Nov. 14.

“This faster restart is fantastic news,“ Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce said. “It also means we can get more of our people back to work, sooner.”

Others said more should be done to jump-start the travel sector. The International Air Transport Association, an airline group, said the need to quarantine, even at home, should be removed for vaccinated travelers who test negative before departure for Australia. Many analysts say it could be years before international travel to Australia reaches pre-pandemic levels.

“International travel recovery will be muted and restrained when quarantine remains,” said Philip Goh, IATA’s regional vice president for Asia-Pacific. “A number of major states—the U.S., Canada, European states—have lifted quarantine requirements for international arrivals. Australia needs to work toward a similar approach.”

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