Australia’s international borders will not be ‘flung open next year,’ finance minister Simon Birmingham said on Thursday.
Aussies have been banned from leaving the country since March 2020 unless granted special exemptions and only citizens and permanent residents have been allowed to enter under some of the strictest coronavirus border rules in the world.
Last year the government predicted the international borders would be open in October 2021 after the whole adult population has been offered a vaccination – but this timeline will be pushed back because of the slow jab rollout and uncertainty around new variants and the effectiveness of vaccines.
Australia’s international borders will not be ‘flung open next year,’ finance minister Simon Birmingham has said. Pictured: A Covid tester at Bondi Beach on Wednesday
In an interview with The Australian ahead of Tuesday’s budget, Mr Birmingham said: ‘We recognise that if Australians want to be kept safe and secure… and given uncertainties that exist not just in the speed of the vaccine rollout but also the extent of its effectiveness to different variants of Covid, the duration of its longevity and effectiveness, these are all consideration that mean we won’t be seeing borders flung open at the start of next year with great ease.’
The minister warned the world was facing greater uncertainty than a few months ago, largely due to a surge in cases and deaths and new mutant strains, which are more infections than original Covid-19, in India.
‘The ferocity of recent Covid outbreaks, the uncertainty in many countries around vaccine rollouts all create an environment in which, although Australia’s enjoying very high levels of business and consumer confidence, there’s a fragility that underpins all of that,’ he said.
His warning is a hammer blow to millions of Australians who have not been able to see family members overseas for more than a year.
According to the 2016 census, half of Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was born overseas.
Earlier this month, Trade Minister Dan Tehan revealed the government will take a ‘systematic’ approach to opening the borders which will see travel bubbles set up with individual nations.
‘Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam have all been mentioned as potentials in that area,’ he said, without giving any dates for when bubbles may start.
Australia has had a two-way travel bubble with New Zealand since April 18.
A nurse collects COVID-19 test samples at the Bondi drive-through testing clinic on Wednesday
As of Tuesday night, Australia had delivered just 2,405,378 vaccines – well short of the government’s target of 4 million by the end of March.
That translates to around 9,000 vaccinations per 100,000 people, compared to 75,000 per 100,000 in the US, or 123,000 per 100,000 in world-leading Israel.
In a speech at the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison will insist that he has no desire to open the international borders soon.
‘[This] will be a budget that continues to be framed by the brutal reality of the global pandemic,’ he will say.
‘We cannot put it at risk, or go with those who would take us in a different direction.’
Mr Morrison on Wednesday said the country’s tough stance on borders had kept Australia safe.
The nation has only suffered 22,399 locally acquired Covid cases and 901 deaths.
However with only one person in the entire country in intensive care treatment due to Covid, the government’s policy has shifted significantly from the initial goal of ‘flattening the curve’ of transmission to allow the health system to manage the virus.
Last week direct commercial flights from India were banned as the nation of 1.4 billion battled a surge in illnesses and death, with more than 350,000 cases per day.
Chartered rescue flights were suspended until May 15 after the Howard Springs quarantine facility near Darwin suffered an explosion of cases among returned travellers from India.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday in Townsville, Mr Morrison said: ‘The pause will be in place until May 15, as we said, and that pause is already working.’
‘This is enabling us to get on the right foot to restore repatriation flights and we are making good progress to that.
‘We are starting to see, as a result of the pause, the results of cases at Howard Spring is coming down – we have more of a distance to travel there – but it is working.’
Relatives and family members carry the dead body of a Covid-19 victim for a cremation at Nigambodh Ghat Crematorium, on the banks of the Yamuna river in New Delhi last week
Stark warning Australia could end up ‘like North Korea’ and be cut off from the world for FIVE years unless we start accepting Covid cases and deaths like we do with flu
Australia could end up being cut off from the rest of the world for five years if we don’t accept some Covid-19 cases and deaths, a leading disease expert has warned.
ANU Professor Peter Collignon said the nation would become like hermit kingdom North Korea where residents are never allowed to leave if our attitude to the virus doesn’t change.
‘Eventually we’re going to have to accept some Covid cases,’ he told Daily Mail Australia on April 20.
‘Unless we want borders closed for the next four to five years. That’s how long it’s going to take for the world to get on top of this.’
ANU Professor Peter Collignon said the nation would become like hermit kingdom North Korea if we don’t accept cases of Covid-19. Pictured: The 109th birth anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung in North Korea last week
Australians are only allowed to fly to New Zealand. Pictured: Passengers queue for check-in at Sydney Airport on Monday
Professor Collignon said that in some ways Australia is a victim of its own success because people are terrified of Covid and don’t want a single case in the country whereas other countries are now accustomed to it circulating.
‘There are some people who want to keep cases to zero and keep the borders closed – it seems the majority.
‘But I can’t see how that’s sustainable – you would turn into a nation like North Korea,’ he said.
‘A lot of Australians have friends and family overseas. You can’t ban travel forever, I don’t think that’s sustainable for social and economic reasons,’ he added.
Mr Morrison has said he wants the nation to treat Covid like flu once vaccinations dramatically reduce the risk of severe disease and deaths.
‘If we want to treat Covid like the flu, then we have to have the same tolerance for Covid as we have for the flu,’ he told The West Live podcast last week.
‘If the international borders were lifted, there would be cases and we’d have to be confident and comfortable that that would be in Australia’s interest’.
Professor Collignon said if Australians want to rejoin the world then they should be prepared to accept a similar number of Covid deaths as flu deaths annually.
He pointed out that in 2017 – which was a bad year for flu – 1,255 people died of influenza and that was acceptable to most people.
New Zealand travelers embrace at Sydney International Airport. Australians can travel to New Zealand but no-where else
‘I expect that Covid will become a seasonal respiratory virus like flu which isn’t ideal but you can have reasonable travel and fewer restrictions on your movement,’ he said.
The infectious diseases expert warned that Australia cannot keep cases to zero even if everyone in the country got vaccinated.
‘There is an expectation that vaccines are 100 per cent effective and we will keep transmission to zero – but this is not the case,’ he said.
‘Vaccines don’t make the risk zero but we really markedly decrease the risk.’
In March AstraZeneca announced test results which found the vaccine was 76 per cent effective at stopping someone from catching Covid-19 and 100 per cent effective at stopping severe symptoms.
A recent Pfizer study found its jab is 91.3 per cent effective at stopping Covid infection and 100 per cent effective in preventing severe symptoms.
Passengers wearing face masks are met by flight crew as they board Qantas flight QF143 bound for Auckland from Sydney
These figures mean that Australia is bound to see transmission and therefore deaths because not everyone will agree to take the jab.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid made this point last week when he said: ‘We don’t have Covid now, but Covid is coming.
‘We cannot keep this virus out of Australia forever unless we become a true island nation with no travel,’ he told ABC radio.
Mr Morrison has insisted that he will not rush opening the borders and will wait at least until the most vulnerable Australians have been offered a vaccine before thinking about introducing a home quarantine system.
Professor Collignon also said it’s still too early and feared that not enough Aussies will have had their jab by winter.
‘I worry about this coming winter. We need to strive to get the over 70s vaccinated and that will markedly decrease death rate, he said.
‘What we need to do is have those most at risk of dying have their Covid vaccine’.