There’s a glimmer of hope for overseas holidays returning next year, with more details revealed about how the government might make decisions on which countries Australians would be allowed to visit.
Where we go will depend on whether the destination country has a substantial rollout of a COVID vaccine.
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the prospect of 2021 international holidays was “not impossible”.
It comes as state governments again bicker over borders, with calls for a radical overhaul of hotel quarantine for returning travellers.
Outbound overseas flights are banned for Australians, except for those granted special exemptions from the government.
However, faster-than-expected progress with COVID vaccines has potentially sped up that timetable, with the federal government considering plans to let Aussies head overseas in the latter part of next year.
“It’s not impossible, and I would like to think that we will see such success in terms of both the vaccines and their effectiveness,” Senator Birmingham told Sky News on Sunday.
“I think the first half [of 2021] may be challenging. But let’s just see how we go in terms of how quickly we can secure, distribute, get that take-up in relation to vaccines with the confidence and safety that everybody needs in terms of the vaccine itself being safe.”
He said it was also crucial that “people aren’t spreading COVID when they come back”, alluding to the possibility of travellers picking up the virus overseas.
Australia is working toward a quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand, while similar arrangements have been mooted with some Pacific and Asian nations.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said there was still “considerable ongoing risks” around international travel, and that medical authorities were still figuring out exactly how international travel would work, with vaccine take-up rates being part of the equation.
“The chief medical officer assesses each country individually, looking at a number of factors including overall case numbers and also their own border controls. A country’s vaccination rollout would be a consideration, in the event of a vaccine or vaccines becoming available,” a spokesperson for the minister told The New Daily.
“Only when our experts believe that the situation in a country poses a very low risk, which can be managed, that we’d be willing to consider travel without quarantine.”
Mr Hunt’s office said authorities would “continue to assess whether other countries should have similar arrangements”, but that “the government’s focus remains on getting Australians home from overseas”.
NSW quarantine uproar
But even that still remains an issue, with state governments at loggerheads over how to deal with Australians returning from overseas.
The federal government has been under fire for not doing more to get the 30,000 stranded Aussies home by Christmas, and has pressured state governments to take in more arrivals through airports.
But now NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian wants to allocate a third of her state’s hotel quarantine spaces for international students and skilled migrants, and South Australia’s opposition leader wants his state to re-evaluate its use of the quarantine program.
The moves would cut the number of overseas Australians able to come home, and would go directly against a national cabinet agreement on November 13 that said returning Australians should get top priority in hotel quarantine.
Ms Berejiklian said she wanted about 1000 of the state’s 3000 weekly capacity given to internationals, in a bid to “to encourage business activity” and support universities.
She said NSW had been welcoming back “more Australians than all the other states combined”, and that her state deserved to focus on its own economy for a while.
“Victoria’s been out of action. The other states simply aren’t doing their fair share,” the Premier alleged.
“I don’t want to see universities lay off hundreds and hundreds of workers because international students can’t get back in.”
NSW’s southern border was also opened on Sunday, following Victoria’s 23rd-straight day of no new COVID cases.
Calls for hotel reform
Also on Sunday, South Australia emerged from its hard lockdown after state health officials reversed the decision following revelations a COVID case had lied about how they contracted the virus.
They had been a worker at a pizza shop connected to the outbreak. Police are investigating.
SA recorded just one new case on Sunday, inside hotel quarantine.
It comes as SA Labor leader Peter Malinauskas called on Premier Steven Marshall and PM Scott Morrison to reform the hotel quarantine program.
Adelaide’s recent outbreak, which led to Australia’s harshest (and shortest) statewide lockdown, came after workers in hotel quarantine carried the virus to their second jobs at a pizza shop.
Here are my remarks from my press conference at 9:30 this morning, calling for medi hotels in their current format to end, until there is a safer solution. You may note that not once do I attack Steven Marshall.
— Peter Malinauskas (@PMalinauskasMP) November 22, 2020
“We must now learn the lessons of the medi-hotel failures in Melbourne and Adelaide, and come up with an alternative model,” Mr Malinauskas said.
He said the model of “using CBD hotels staffed with subcontracted security and ancillary casual labour, is simply not safe”.
Much discussion was sparked after another case of a worker spreading the virus between separate workplaces, with calls for hotel quarantine staff to be paid enough and given secure working conditions so they don’t need to seek additional employment.
Premier Marshall said he was “disappointed” with the Labor calls, saying it “makes no sense”.
“I think this is just a blatant attempt, quite frankly, at pushing fear and division,” he alleged.