Australia will closely monitor rates of hospitalisation and death in nations that have been largely vaccinated against Covid-19 to decide when it can gradually re-open international borders, Scott Morrison has revealed.
In an interview with Sky News on Thursday, the Prime Minister said the world will be living with the deadly virus for years to come and Australia will have to manage the risk using border controls, vaccinations and contact tracing and testing.
He said that Australia would not suddenly open its border to everyone but would take gradual steps to first allow crucial workers and international students to enter over the course of the next 12 months.
‘It isn’t closed one day, open the next,’ he said.
But he warned new variants of the disease, which may make vaccines less effective, could dash hopes of a return to normal.
Mr Morrison noted that hospitalisations in the UK were rising due to the spread of the India Delta variant, forcing Boris Johnson to delay lifting restrictions until July 19, even though 80 per cent of British adults have had a first dose and 58 per cent have had a second dose of the vaccine.
If the hospitalisation rates stabilise and do not increase dramatically as occurred last year, then Australia would be more amenable to opening its borders and re-connecting with the world.
‘If the virus is there, but the hospitalisations and the serious illness doesn’t occur and we see that on a sustained basis, well, that says that there is a potentially different pathway there,’ Mr Morrison said.
‘But the jury is not in on that yet. There’s new variants like Delta and so on that can change all of that.’
Scientists in Australia and over the world and trying to work out how effective vaccines are at stopping transmission and how good they are against new variants.
In May, the government announced that international tourism was unlikely to return until mid-2022, other than with New Zealand which has also suppressed Covid.
Nations in Europe have set up a traffic light system to determine which countries their citizens can visit over northern hemisphere summer, based on the Covid infection rates in each place.
Mr Morrison said he will be watching closely to see if widespread tourism pushes up the death rate on the continent.
‘We will see over the course of this summer in Europe, where a lot of people will be moving around under those new arrangements, and we’ll be able to see what the impact of that is,’ he said.
The Prime Minister said it was harder for him to open Australia’s border because the European public is accustomed to infections and deaths but Aussies are not.
Comparing Australia to the UK, which did not close its borders early in the pandemic, he said: ‘They didn’t take that option at the time.
‘And that just highlights the point that, once you pass through the gates of decisions like this, it’s very difficult, difficult to go back.
‘And that’s why we’ve been cautious on those issues.’
Last month a poll showed about 75 per cent of Australians supported the tough international border closure, which requires citizens and permanent residents to apply for an exemption to leave the country unless they are going for more than three months.
In early February 2020, Australia was one of the first countries in the world to close its borders to China, even before the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic.
The government soon closed off to South Korea, Italy and eventually the whole world, even banning outbound travel as the virus took hold in every corner of the globe.
Mr Morrison admitted the decision has left Australia – which he called a ‘migration nation’ – suffering from a shortage of workers.
Farmers in particular have been crippled by a lack of backpackers to pick fruit and vegetables, prompting the government to announce a new visa for south-east Asian agriculture workers.
‘We know the challenges that our agriculture sector, but not just our agricultural sector, our defence industry sector, our infrastructure sector,’ Mr Morrison said.
‘This is one of the challenges of having closed borders is it puts real constraints on the size of your workforce.’
The workers could be brought in before the end of the year via on-farm quarantine or even quarantine in their home nations if states agree.
With education a key export worth $37.6billion, the government will also allow international students to return slowly via quarantine in student accommodation.
‘Whether it’s the student pilots we’re doing, it’s the gradual process of opening things up safely, but also in a way that is targeted on the things that will give us the biggest benefit for our economy,’ Mr Morrison said.
The Prime Minister gave the interview in Paris, France where he held talks with President Emmanuel Macron.
He flew to the UK last week for the G7 summit, to finalise a trade deal with Prime Minister Johnson, and to meet the Queen.
Mr Morrison will arrive home on Thursday night where he will quarantine for two weeks at The Lodge.
Only three per cent of Australians are fully vaccinated but this figure will rise dramatically in the coming weeks as thousands get their second doses.
One in four Australians have received at least one jab after more than 150,000 doses were administered in the most recent 24-hour period.
The government faced heavy criticism after the vaccine rollout was thrown into chaos by a European export ban and advice from regulators than people under 50 should not have AstraZeneca due to a very rare side effect of blood clotting.