About 36,500 Australians stranded overseas and international students will have to wait longer to come to Australia, after Scott Morrison declared alternatives to hotel quarantine unsafe.
Three weeks after saying he wanted to develop “innovative” alternatives, including quarantine in-home, on-farm or on-campus, the prime minister revealed Australia’s top health advisers consider they are “not … options we can safely take on”.
After national cabinet on Friday, Morrison told reporters in Canberra that Australia cannot yet take international students back and would therefore take an “Australians first” approach as it rations places in its cap of 6,000 arrivals per week.
The continued restriction is a blow to Australia’s struggling university sector and the prospect of international business travel resuming before a widely available vaccine.
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Morrison thanked Queensland for agreeing on Friday to boost its contribution by 150 places per week and signalled extra capacity in Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.
But with Victoria’s hotel quarantine program still suspended, Morrison said Australia could expect to bring just 25,000 Australians home by the year’s end, while 36,500 were registered to return. Capacity would grow when Melbourne resumes arrivals, he said.
“The challenges are still greater than the capacity to receive people in quarantine,” he said. Morrison noted that numbers of Australians intending to return had grown from 26,000 in mid-September and likened it to “a cup that keeps filling up”.
“Australia will maintain its quarantine arrangements for people coming from overseas,” he said.
In October the Halton review canvassed alternate sites for quarantine and the possible use of smartphone apps and wearable surveillance devices to allow travellers to quarantine at home.
But the acting chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, said although there were some pilots of on-farm quarantine for seasonal workers from low-risk countries there were no “large-scale” alternatives to hotel quarantine.
Kelly noted “how dangerous the rest of the world is” – citing 157,000 new cases in the UK in the last week and 731,000 in the US – and credited hotel quarantine with Australia’s success excluding and containing the coronavirus.
Morrison said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and the national cabinet had “taken a good look at [alternatives], and those options aren’t presenting”.
“We’ll keep looking. But I’m not going to raise an expectation that you could expect to see them.”
Morrison argued that hotel spots were not the only limit on arrivals, citing the use of police and health officials to maintain safe quarantine.
“The challenges we have in getting Australians home means the ability to … take international students back at this time through quarantine arrangements does not present itself.
“It’s Australians coming home first – that is the commonwealth policy.”
Nevertheless, Australia will implement small-scale trials of international students returning, most likely in the ACT and South Australia.
Morrison noted the the New Zealand travel bubble allowed quarantine-free travel and states easing their border policies would also free up more places.
Morrison played down the prospect of opening travel to more low-risk countries before the end of the year, but noted he would discuss the issue on his trip to Japan and Papua New Guinea next week.
“It’s working well with New Zealand at the moment,” he said. “There may be small countries, where there are zero cases and very low risk, where that at the margin can be achieved.”
But a “scaled change” in international travel “is not in our immediate future”, Morrison said.
Kelly said Japan, PNG and Pacific nations “remain in our sights” because they had a “very different experience of the pandemic”, with fewer cases.
“But at the moment the decision is the world is red – which means 14 days’ hotel quarantine – unless they are very specifically detailed as green, in which case these alternatives might be available.”
Earlier, the health minister, Greg Hunt, suggested “widespread international travel” could resume by the end of 2021 if a vaccine was successfully rolled out.
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The national cabinet also endorsed a national vaccination policy and received a review on national contact tracing and outbreak management from Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel.
Finkel said the review had concluded there was “good reason to be confident in the contact tracing and outbreak management systems in Australia”.
The review recommended governments develop better metrics to assess their contact tracing systems and conduct simulations to ensure jurisdictions were ready in the event of new cases.
Finkel also called for “a means of digitally exchanging information between the states and territories”.
“We’ve recommended a very light-touch digital exchange mechanism that will respect all of the legislative and privacy requirements to enable states and territories … to swap contact tracing information with each other, and access contact tracing information from government agency databases.”
Kelly said Australia now had advanced purchase agreements for four different types of vaccine – or 134 million doses – and had signed up to the Covax initiative, which would guarantee 50% of Australia’s population was immunised.
Morrison said Covid-19 vaccination would not be mandatory, although the strategy stated the Australian government can make vaccination a condition of entry.
Kelly said the policy would contain a “very strong component of communication” to counter misinformation about vaccines.