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Is there any hope? Australia's roadmap out of covid restrictions: international borders.

By Joh Gwynn

27 September 2021

On 6th August 2021, National Cabinet agreed to Australia's roadmap out of covid. Many of us impacted by international border restrictions have been watching with hopeful anticipation that we would finally have clear answers on when the situation would ease.

Since then, most of the National Cabinet has backed away from that plan.

We shouldn't be surprised, really. We have seen Australia's response to covid become a shambolic mess. Instead of national unity, each state government has taken control of the response in a different way. We shouldn't be fooled by a national plan. We should also be used to announcements that have no actions to follow through. Remember how everyone was going to be home by Christmas, 2020? Now it is harder than ever to get to Australia and over 45,000 Australians are currently registered with DFAT. In May, not only was entry completely denied for some, but fleeing a worsening pandemic became a criminally punishable offence with a five-year jail term and $60,000 fine!

Furthermore, the situation is NSW and VIC has escalated since the National Cabinet decision and the governments of those two states have abandoned the goal of covid zero that the rest of the country is still trying to maintain. This adds to the differences in approach by different state governments.

Although there is a national plan, each state government is devising their own plan out of covid. This continued fracture of our federation only adds to the confusion and uncertainty we are experiencing.

Of course, we are confused! We are hearing rumours of opening by Christmas, of Qantas taking off from 18 December but face the stark reality of caps at a record low, flight prices at an all-time high, and some airlines threatening to withdraw from Australia all together. We are not currently able to book flights to get us home this year.

So, I thought it was time to review all the published roadmaps and information that we have and see if there is any sense to come out of this for people trying to enter Australia. What can we expect? Is there any hope?

National roadmap:

Here is the link to the national roadmap agreed to by National Cabinet on 6th August. (Find the PDF at the bottom of the media statement.)

https://www.pm.gov.au/media/national-cabinet-statement-11

What is says about international borders (From above website):

Phase A (the current phase) Trial home quarantine for vaccinated Review hotel quarantine (again)

Phase B (after 70% double dose)

*** measures may include*** Restore inbound passenger caps at previous levels for unvaccinated returning travellers and larger caps for vaccinated returning travellers Allow capped entry of student and economic visa holders subject to quarantine arrangements and availability Introduce new reduced quarantine arrangements for vaccinated residents.

Phase C (after 80% double dose)

***measures may include*** Exempt vaccinated residents from all domestic restrictions Abolish caps on returning vaccinated Australians Allow increased capped entry of student, economic, and humanitarian visa holders Lift all restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians; and Extend travel bubble for unrestricted travel to new candidate countries (Singapore, Pacific) Gradual reopening of inward and outward international travel, with safe countries and proportionate quarantine and reduced requirements for fully vaccinated inbound travellers.

What does this mean:

This means that once Australia reaches 80% double vaccination the borders ARE NOT automatically opening.

Instead of opening, this is when we will start to see an easing on border restrictions. This is when they will start the gradual reopening. This is when they will start some travel bubbles. This is when restrictions might start to ease for vaccinated people. At this time, there will still be Australians stuck overseas and there will be a quota for some visa holders to enter Australia.

Phase D is when the international border might open broadly. Post vaccination phase. Even at phase D there is an expectation that some quarantine is required and still different rules for unvaccinated people.

Let's look closer at each state’s response to the National roadmap.

New South Wales:

With the vaccination rates in NSW the highest in Australia so far, everyone is watching to see what NSW does. Then each state will probably do their own version.

NSW Premier updated the NSW roadmap on 27/09/2021. Mostly, the roadmap concerns local restrictions. In the press conference on 27 Sep, NSW Premier indicated an intention to allow international borders to reopen. It was suggested that after NSW reaches 80% vaccination, they will increase the caps on international arrivals to their previous rates and in December they would be waiting for the green light from the Prime Minister to open further. Regarding international borders, the NSW roadmap indicates that quarantine settings for vaccinated arrivals would change and there may still be a cap on unvaccinated arrivals.

https://www.nsw.gov.au/media-releases/roadmap-to-recovery-reveals-path-forward-for-all-nsw

The information published by NSW government so far still has little concrete detail. However, with NSW also a Liberal state government, we can assume they will try to align with their federal Liberal colleagues as much as possible… especially with an election looming. Expect more information between now and December.

NSW home quarantine trial announcement: 

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-17/nsw-to-trial-home-quarantine-for-travellers/100469932

https://www.afr.com/policy/health-and-education/why-90pc-could-be-the-new-80pc-for-nsw-20210916-p58s78


Victoria:

https://www.coronavirus.vic.gov.au/victorias-roadmap

Mostly, Victoria's roadmap is about local restrictions and lockdowns. In the roadmap, the restrictions in Melbourne will become the same as regional Victoria when everyone over 16 is 80% vaccinated. That means, someone in Melbourne cannot visit their family in Geelong until 80% of over 16s are vaccinated.

Victoria's road map indicates they will only join the National roadmap after 80% of Victorians aged 12 and above are vaccinated. This is slightly higher than the 80% threshold of all aged 16 and above. This is the only comment in the roadmap regarding international travel.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/sep/19/victoria-covid-roadmap-premier-declares-we-are-opening-up-with-lockdown-to-end-in-late-october

Victoria has recently announced home quarantine for some people who have been stuck in New South Wales 

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/sep/23/victoria-covid-update-766-new-cases-border-pass


Queensland:

Queensland's plan for easing restrictions says nothing regarding interstate or international travel. 

https://www.covid19.qld.gov.au/government-actions/roadmap-to-easing-queenslands-restrictions

Recent media reports indicate the QLD Premier is in no rush to open borders and is backing away from the National Plan to open international borders after the 80% target is reached. 

https://www.executivetraveller.com/news/as-international-flights-resume-could-queensland-be-left-behind

https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/7442073/qld-govt-wary-about-international-travel/

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theaustralian.com.au/nation/coronavirus-premier-annastacia-palaszczuk-casts-doubt-on-opening-queensland-borders/news-story/ab679a2aac3d9433c5d27fe29ac91840

It seems unclear even when QLD might open state borders 

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/sep/25/are-you-going-to-india-queensland-isnt-in-any-hurry-to-open-borders


South Australia:

South Australia's Premier has also backed away from the national plan according to media. He has signalled the possibility of state borders reopening at the 80% double vax target. 

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.9news.com.au/article/a21729fb-20ff-46ba-9912-e3afcc0c6df3

SA have had a trial of home quarantine and should report to National Cabinet about it. They recently expanded the trial 

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-17/sa-home-quarantine-trial-expands-to-overseas-travellers/100470090


Western Australia:

Western Australia's Premier has cast doubt that WA will reach 80% double dose target this year. He is also indicating that WA will keep border restrictions in place to the other states until the target has been reached.

https://7news.com.au/lifestyle/health-wellbeing/scott-morrison-praises-nsw-covid-roadmap-slams-wa-premiers-christmas-prediction-c-3917494

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-10/wa-budget-border-likely-to-remain-closed-for-months/100448008


TAS, NT, ACT

These states and territories don't get as much attention in the discussions about international arrivals. For the most part, they have not received international arrivals throughout the pandemic... not on many commercial flights. Obviously, most of the DFAT flights are going to Howard Springs in NT. TAS has also been involved in quarantining farm work visa holders and evacuees from Afghanistan.

This article indicates TAS could wait till 90% double vaccination before resuming international travel. 

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.abc.net.au/article/100431784

This article (Sorry, behind a paywall) predicts mid to late 2022. 

https://www.examiner.com.au/story/7405743/when-tasmania-could-reopen-to-international-visitors-students/

This article suggests NT will only open state borders when 80% double dose target is achieved. Unvaccinated may not be allowed. (I couldn't find updates on their view of international borders.) 

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.skynews.com.au/australia-news/coronavirus/nt-chief-minister-outlines-plans-to-reopen-border-to-the-vaccinated/news-story/b7d22752fe9d658b2027adfe4c3a7127%3famp

ACT’s plan indicates interstate/international travel restrictions would be in line with the national plan sometime in November or December. 

https://www.covid19.act.gov.au/act-status-and-response/the-acts-pathway-forward/acts-pathway-forward


So, what can we expect?

With the lack of details coming from the decision makers, there is no way that we could put a timeline on any of these anticipated changes. Even though we may start to see some changes soon, they will be gradual.

• The start of gradual reopening after 80% double dose target met, first in NSW. Victoria and South Australia seem the next most likely to follow. Will each state open or will they wait until a national 80% double dose target is met? Is it a state-by-state target or a national one?

• There are likely to be arrival caps in some form or other for several months to come.

• There will be a quota for visa holders, and this will run alongside the caps for Australian citizens and residents.

• There are likely to be travel bubbles. This essentially means that people coming from certain destinations will have different rules.

• There will be different rules for vaccinated v unvaccinated people.

• Each state wants to have different rules. Apart from NSW and VIC, the state governments are still committed to a zero covid strategy. The other states will possibly ease restrictions to people stuck in NSW and VIC before those stuck overseas.

• QLD, WA, SA, TAS, NT will be unlikely to ease restrictions on people stuck in VIC and NSW until after they reach 80% double dose targets. International borders will likely be considered after this.

• Some people might be able to quarantine at home soon... but not everyone. Logical steps towards this include trials, vaccinated people, coming from 'low risk' countries, only allowed in the state of arrival, must have suitable place for quarantine. Key issues are how to get people safely to quarantine at home? Who would be eligible? How would their quarantine be monitored? How to keep people away from people in quarantine?

• Quarantine is still likely to be needed in some capacity for a while. They are building new facilities, remember. This would be needed for people who don't have somewhere to quarantine, people who live interstate, people who can't or won't be vaccinated, coming from 'high risk' countries.

• If each state is going to have different rules. What does this mean for people who have no choice but to enter through a specific Australian airport?

• There is no talk of removing the travel exemption process for visa holders to enter Australia.

• Will people who want to leave Australia still need an exemption? Will it depend on where they want to go?

• When the travel restrictions are reviewed again in 3 months, on 18 December, the travel restrictions will be extended for another 3 months (even if there are some changes).

• Vaccine passports? Which vaccines? When? How? It seems this is likely to happen in some form or other going forward. What about people who can't or won't be vaccinated?

• What rules/restrictions will airlines themselves put in place?

• Many flight options to Australia will continue to be limited as travel restrictions will still be in place in other countries.

• We can expect a lot more talk (and politics) before we see the real plan or the details of the plan.

• We can expect more uncertainty.

In summary, it is not time to get the champagne out yet. It is great that there are finally discussions about reopening the borders, but so far, it is all basically just discussion.

As Australia moves closer towards vaccination targets, we should have some cautious hope that things will change… gradually.

Please don't be misled by all the noise. There isn't any plan, no details yet. To make the best choices, we need information. Right now, we do not have the information about international borders opening, about home quarantine, about different rules for vaccinated people, etc.

It isn’t just us stranded that need this information. If there is going to be a real change in the amount of people reaching Australia the airlines desperately need that information too. Airlines, aviation industry groups and experts have been very outspoken on this matter. Airlines need time to schedule the planes, organise the ground crew, hire airport staff and put appropriate systems in place for changed travel situations. Flights don’t just happen. Without this information, there is a risk that restrictions could ease but the flights won’t be there to get us home.

Let’s hope we get some clear answers and fast actions so that everyone impacted by border restrictions can be confident of finally making it home. There will be further announcements. Please keep up to date with the official information so you can make the best choice.


Other recent and relevant articles:

Lack of communication with airlines over opening plans.

https://australianaviation.com.au/2021/09/aussies-abroad-cant-fly-home-for-christmas

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-27/travel-international-borders-qantas-cathaypacific-singapore/100485428

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/sep/15/airlines-warn-nsw-may-reopen-to-international-travel-but-with-few-planes-to-service-huge-demand

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.smh.com.au/politics/federal/foreign-airlines-at-risk-of-pulling-out-leading-to-fewer-flights-higher-fares-20210911-p58qtz.html

https://www.traveller.com.au/australia-international-travel-restart-qantas-resuming-flights-but-will-destinations-be-open-h1ys1v


Prime Minister unhappy at Premiers who want to keep state borders locked down. 26 Sep 2021 

https://www.news.com.au/national/politics/scott-morrison-issues-threat-to-premiers-to-open-borders-by-christmas/news-story/0ee185adda35ed7c1ad908cbf22a09c1


Could keeping state borders closed be unconstitutional? 27 Sep 2021 

https://www.news.com.au/entertainment/tv/current-affairs/constitutional-lawyer-reveals-big-problem-for-states-that-refuse-to-open/news-story/df2c2be7d6957f73c00c1f5f46b9269f


Federal Health Minister, 23 Sep 2021. (See question from journalist about international travel.)

https://www.health.gov.au/ministers/the-hon-greg-hunt-mp/media/minister-hunts-press-conference-in-melbourne-on-23-september-2021-with-an-update-on-the-vaccination-rollout-use-of-sotrovimab-and-home-quarantine


Vaccine passports and state govts not committing to national plan. 8 Sep 2021.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/sep/08/australia-to-have-vaccine-passport-system-ready-within-weeks-for-international-travel


Federal Minster for Trade, visa holders, travel bubbles. 23 Sep 2021.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.9news.com.au/article/402018cc-0cde-47ba-b1af-1b46d2cda9f6


Home quarantine, Rapid antigens tests. 14 Sep 2021.

https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/home-quarantine-rapid-testing-will-bring-australians-closer-to-international-travel-20210914-p58rkc.html


If you would like to follow vaccine rates in Australia, I recommend this website as one source of good information:

https://www.covidbaseau.com/

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    • Thank you for this compilation of available information. 

      As you note, lots of may be's and might's 

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