Travellers can look forward to shorter queues at Australian airports from Wednesday after the federal government drops COVID-19 vaccination requirements for international arrivals.
And epidemiologists say the changes will have little effect on local case numbers.
Changes to the Biosecurity Act coming into effect this Wednesday mean people travelling to Australia will no longer have to complete a Digital Passenger Declaration (DPD) to declare their COVID-19 vaccination status, or provide a travel exemption.
Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil said the changes would reduce delays at airports struggling under the weight of pent-up demand while also encouraging more tourists and skilled workers to fly to Australia.
“Removing these requirements will not only reduce delays in our airports but will encourage more visitors and skilled workers to choose Australia as a destination,” Ms O’Neil said.
“And for Australian citizens, with the removal of these requirements, returning home will be much easier.”
The decision was welcomed by Australian Federation of Travel Agents chief executive Dean Long, who said the move was important for the tourism industry.
“With school holidays under way or about to kick off in many states and territories, and a rapidly growing number of Australians keen to escape the Australian winter, the pressure on our airports and airport staff is huge,” he said.
Vaccination rules ease for skittish tourists
Airline Intelligence & Research CEO and former Qantas chief economist Tony Webber said there is “no doubt” Australia will see a lift in inbound tourism as a result of the eased restrictions.
“There will be at least some [unvaccinated people] that were having aspirations to come down to Australia to tour and to visit, and now that these restrictions have been waived and they’re no longer relevant, that’ll stimulate some of them to come down,” he said.
But Dr Webber told The New Daily that the changes would not lead to a massive influx of visitors.
He said there remained a lingering hesitancy over booking long-distance flights after years of strict rules and sudden border closures – with Novak Djokovic’s deportation sending a message to many overseas tourists that Australia was not a hospitable country to visit.
Dr Webber said it would likely be another six to 12 months before international travellers returned in more serious numbers.
But he expects the removal of vaccination requirements for inbound passengers will lead to an immediate improvement in airport processing times.
Checking a traveller’s COVID vaccination status only takes between 30 seconds to one minute, but Dr Webber said with hundreds of thousands of people moving through airports, the removal of these checks will definitely save time.
Looser rules unlikely to drive up COVID cases
The loosening of pandemic border restrictions came after Australia recorded its 10,000th COVID death on Sunday.
But although the restrictions were enforced to prevent more COVID cases landing onshore, Deakin University chair in epidemiology Catherine Bennett said allowing unvaccinated tourists to visit Australia wouldn’t make a big difference to current infection rates.
She said this was partly because vaccines become far less effective at preventing COVID infection months after they have been administered.
“We know the reinfection risk is higher with Omicron than it has been with other variants, and that period of protection is less than it used to be,” Dr Bennett said.
“Immediately after a booster dose, you’ve got one to two months where you halve your risk of infection, but it does wane after that.”
The government is currently encouraging people with a high risk of severe complications from COVID to get a ‘winter booster’ four months after their first booster.
Dr Bennett said everyone eligible for the winter booster should get it.
“Can’t guarantee you won’t end up in hospital, but it reduces your risk by 80 per cent or more,” she said.
And even though she doesn’t think looser border restrictions will have a big effect on COVID-19 case numbers, Dr Bennett said this doesn’t mean all restrictions should be lifted.
In particular, wearing masks in tightly packed public spaces, such as public transport, helps prevent several viruses from spreading and keeps the spaces accessible to the immunocompromised.
The DPD required people entering Australia to provide contact details, declare their vaccination status, reveal where they had been in the past 14 days, and commit to following quarantine and testing requirements.
Although the DPD will end this week, it is expected to return in the future.
“While in time it will replace the paper-based incoming passenger card, it needs a lot more work to make it user-friendly,” Ms O’Neil said.