Australia’s international travel ban is based on politics and not science, according to health experts who say there are a number of countries Australia could safely resume travel with this year.
On Sunday the treasurer Josh Frydenberg told SBS News that the budget expectation is that international travel will begin in 2022, with further detail expected when the budget is released on Tuesday. Meanwhile the prime minister Scott Morrison posted on Facebook that borders would only open “when it is safe to do so”, saying during media interviews over the weekend that Australians do not have an “appetite” for opening borders if it means further lockdowns and restrictions.
But a professor in paediatrics, vaccinology, epidemiology and infectious diseases with the University of Sydney, Robert Booy, said there were south Pacific and east Asian countries that had proved to have strong infection control procedures in place and that Australia could open sooner.
“Vietnam has done a great job,” said Booy, who is a senior fellow at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance.
“South Korea has had a problem, but they’ll soon be under control again. Taiwan has done fantastically well, and they have a similar total population to Australia.
“But politics rules. And therefore the governments at state and federal levels say they will respect and follow the medical advice, [but] some of it is based on rather anecdotal medical evidence. Some of it comes down to whether you respect one medical expert over another, and that’s when the government has the opportunity to take a political decision.”
Booy said closing borders was politically popular, and while he believed the government was hearing views on various ways of reopening borders, “they’re also working for reelection”.
“We should have much better entry of people from Asia for education,” he said. “We could have much better tourism with more people coming both ways. Those are real possibilities if you get away from the political considerations. We’ve got to get a bit more clever about how we adjust and compromise between the two. And it’s not easy, but we need to make sure that reelection is not the primary purpose [for the travel policy].”
Prof Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist with expertise in hospital infection and infectious diseases control, agreed “some of our Asian neighbours are much safer than we think”.
“I thought we were way over this xenophobia, because we like to think of ourselves as in Asia, and as multicultural. Of course, New Zealand is our cousin, our beloved neighbour. But so are Asian countries. If the government is thinking of travel safety bubbles, they could really set up a good scientific relationship with our neighbours elsewhere, based on the approach to the way they treat Covid clusters.”
McLaws said it made no sense that the government had approved travel for Olympic athletes “in the prime of their lives” to Japan, where Covid-19 infections were still out of control, before approving broader travel with safe Asian countries like Taiwan and even China.
To make travel safe for those yet to be vaccinated, rapid antigen tests should be brought into airports and made compulsory for returned travellers, she said. This would help determine who could quarantine at home or in hotels.
“When you do go home, you’re still going to probably have to have another follow-up test to make sure, and that’s going to be expensive to expect community nurses to go out and do it,” McLaws said.
“So there’s going to have to be some acceptance by the pathology groups and the TGA [Therapeutic Goods Administration] to allow some at-home tests because we won’t be able to keep up the quarantine facilities that we’ve been using at the moment.
“So I think we need to bring science into this more, and potentially think about how we enable travel to occur with that good science,” McLaws said.