Tourists who refuse to get a COVID vaccine will not be allowed to freely enter Australia, Health Minister Greg Hunt has warned, as Qantas says it might refuse to fly anti-vaxxer passengers.
Foreigners visiting Australia in future will need to be vaccinated against COVID, or spend two weeks in expensive hotel quarantine, Mr Hunt said on Tuesday.
It comes on the back of encouraging global progress in developing multiple coronavirus vaccines, including the Oxford University, University of Queensland and Pfizer models for which the federal government has locked in supply deals.
Overnight, a study on the Oxford vaccine found it had effectiveness up to 90 per cent in trials. About the same time, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said his airline was looking at changing its terms and conditions to require a COVID vaccine before flying
On Tuesday, Mr Hunt said “no final decision” had been made regarding the nation’s international borders into 2021. But tourists would likely need either a vaccine or a stay in quarantine – effectively meaning non-vaccinated visitors would not be able to freely enter Australia.
“The likely course of events during 2021 is if somebody comes to Australia and a vaccine is widely available, either they’ll be vaccinated with verification or they’ll have to quarantine,” he said.
Mr Hunt stressed that was “early guidance”, and “not a formal decision that we’ve taken because it’s still not at that time.”
“As a government, our responsibility is to make sure that our vaccine is available to every Australian … we’ll leave that to the firm to outline its policies,” Mr Hunt said.
“As we move forward, and this is a conversation within the community, the medical advice will primarily inform the circumstances and the way in which that will be delivered.”
The reaffirmation of Australia’s strict border policies comes as a debate opens up about hotel quarantine, with epidemiologists and public health experts warning the system should be improved and tightened.
The nation’s latest COVID outbreaks, in Adelaide and Melbourne, were sparked in part due to breaches in hotel quarantine procedures.
Acting chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly recently said hotel quarantine was Australia’s “major risk” of reintroducing COVID.
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said at the weekend that international holidays for Australians in 2021 were “not impossible”. But Mr Hunt’s office warned the destinations might be limited.
Mr Hunt also shared more details about which vaccine Australians might receive in 2021. The federal government has a deal for 33.8 million doses of the Oxford vaccine – with the necessary two-dose cycle, it could cover nearly 17 million people.
Another 10 million doses of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine would cover another five million people.
Australia also has secured 40 million doses of a vaccine from Novavax, and will produce 51 million doses of the UQ model. Both of those are still in trials.
Questions have been raised regarding a situation where Australia has ample stocks of multiple successful and approved vaccines, and how decisions would be made on which type each person would get.
Mr Hunt said it would be “always a matter for the medical experts” but that the situation wasn’t unprecedented.
“We’re used to this though – in any one year, there may be a variety of different types of flu vaccines. This year, we had a number of flu vaccines that were available. The Australian public didn’t really notice the difference,” he said.
“Some were more suited to the elderly, others were more suited to the general population. And so, that’s why we have a taskforce of medical experts to look at the vaccines.”
Mr Hunt said he was not worried about the possibility of confusion about the different vaccine types.
Therapeutic Goods Administration boss John Skerritt said last week that some vaccines might be found to be more suitable for different populations than others.