The federal government could allow some Australians vaccinated against COVID-19 to travel overseas within 6-8 weeks under a pilot program, health minister Greg Hunt reportedly told parliamentary colleagues on Tuesday.
According to The Guardian, fully vaccinated Australians could soon be permitted to leave the country without having to apply for a travel restriction exemption. People vaccinated in Australia would qualify, as well as those who received a recognised jab in other countries where vaccination status is reliably recorded and can be verified.
Vaccinated travellers coming from countries with a low prevalence of COVID-19 could also soon face less strict quarantine requirements upon their return to Australia. For example, they may be allowed to leave hotel quarantine early by producing a negative result to both a rapid antigen and PCR test for COVID-19.
The Guardian also reports that the government is considering adding a new “amber” category of countries which are considered to be relatively safe, but are not quarantine-free “green zone” countries such as New Zealand. Some form of travel restrictions would still apply to “amber” countries, but these would be less harsh than the full two weeks of hotel quarantine which would continue to be required for arrivals from “red” countries.
Currently, New Zealand is the only “green zone” country to have formed a travel bubble with Australia. But the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers hinted this week that both countries’ travel bubbles could soon be extended to some Pacific Island nations. New Zealand has already formed a travel bubble with the Cook Islands, and places like Vanuatu or Fiji could be next.
The Guardian article said that federal government was conducting modelling that would see a pilot program of this nature launching within six to eight weeks, which would be sometime in late July 2021.
Good news, if true
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison has publicly announced a taskforce to consider the circumstances under which overseas travel restrictions could be lifted, there have been no official announcements yet about the proposal reported by The Guardian. This was merely a discussion that took place in a government meeting this week, so the news should be taken with a large pinch of salt. But if it does happen, this would be a very welcome step in the right direction for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the removal of the outbound travel ban is long overdue. Australia is now one of only four countries in the world with a blanket ban on leaving the country due to COVID-19. It is not fundamentally necessary to protect Australia’s public health as the real risk is from people returning, not leaving. And countless Australians say their genuine requests to travel for essential reasons have been rejected. Others say the approval process was so lengthy that permission was only granted for them to visit dying family members after they had already passed away.
If vaccinated Australians were permitted to leave quarantine after testing negative to COVID-19, this would also make it much less costly (and frankly, palatable) for more Australians to be able to return home. It could also greatly increase hotel quarantine capacity, allowing more of the tens of thousands of Australians still stranded overseas to come back.
In addition, such a proposal would provide another incentive for more Australians to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Following a sluggish start to the vaccine rollout in Australia, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce also suggested last week that his airline could offer perks like points or even free flights to vaccinated Australians.
One downside of this plan is that this would not benefit Australians who are not yet eligible to receive a vaccine. For example, most Australians under 40 years old, who don’t fit into one of the priority groups, have not yet been offered an opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccine – and may not until towards the end of 2021.
Nonetheless, any steps towards restarting even a small amount of international travel in a safe way ought to be considered.
Join the discussion on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum: Predictions of when international flights may resume/bans lifted