Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said it was still not safe to allow residents, even those fully vaccinated against COVID-19, to travel overseas, as industries hit hard by the pandemic press for a faster reopening of international borders.
“I understand that everyone is keen to get back to a time that we once knew,” Morrison told reporters on Tuesday “But the reality is we are living this year in a pandemic that is worse than last year.”
Morrison said any plans to relax border rules for vaccinated travellers could be implemented “only when it is safe to do so”.
Australia plans to reopen borders to the rest of the world from the middle of 2022 even as the federal budget unveiled last week hopes to fully vaccinate its near 26 million population by the end of this year.
Airlines, tourism operators and universities – reeling from the effect of border bans that have all but eliminated COVID-19 in Australia – have been urging the government to accelerate the opening of borders.
“We can’t keep (COVID-19) out forever … It will make us sick but won’t put us into hospital. Some people may die but it will be way smaller than the flu,” Virgin Australia boss Jayne Hrdlicka was quoted as saying in Australian media on Tuesday.
Morrison described Hrdlicka’s comments as “somewhat insensitive”.
Authorities in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, said at least 80 percent of its adult population had to be fully vaccinated before it would consider quarantine-free entry.
Australia closed its international borders in March 2020 and imposed a mandatory self-funded hotel quarantine for all citizens who wanted to return home in a move that has helped suppress the coronavirus but left thousands stranded overseas. The country has reported just under 30,000 cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) urged the government to strengthen the hotel quarantine system and establish long-term quarantine facilities to better manage the continuing risk posed by COVID-19.
“While international border closures have sheltered Australia from the worst impacts of COVID-19, we know these are having a significant detrimental impact on some areas of the economy,” AMA President Dr Omar Khorshid said in statement.
The AMA said with the emergence of new variants, the government needed to further refine the hotel quarantine system to improve ventilation and ensure staff are vaccinated and better protected, but over the longer term should establish dedicated quarantine facilities for inbound travellers.
Australia’s national immunisation drive has been slow to get off the ground, falling short of original targets.
More than 3.1 million total vaccine shots have been administered so far, well short of the four million the government had originally pledged by the end of March.
Outbreaks within the community have been traced back to failures in the hotel quarantine system, with a breach in Melbourne triggering a strict months-long lockdown last year.