Fortress Australia’s COVID-19 Reopening Plan: Stay Shut

International arrivals halved . . .

The highest-profile feature of Australia’s new COVID-19 response plan, announced last Friday, is a move to halve the number of international passenger arrivals at the country’s airports by July 14 to 3,035 per day. To put that number in context, in January 2020, at the height of Australia’s last pre-COVID summer tourist season, 60,000 passengers arrived at the country’s airports per day. Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicated that changes to the country’s largely closed border were unlikely until next year. Those returning to Australia on government-organized flights are not included in the newly reduced maximum number, although PM Morrison admitted there had been a “dip in demand” for such flights in recent weeks.

A phased approach . . .

Notably, Australia’s four-stage plan treats vaccinated and non-vaccinated travellers differently. Phase 1 focuses on limiting international arrivals and vaccinating residents while piloting home quarantine for returning vaccinated travellers. Phase 2 sees an easing of restrictions on vaccinated residents, increases the maximum number of vaccinated international travellers, and allows for the entry of vaccinated economic and student visa holders if quarantine capacity permits. Phase 3 would see no domestic restrictions on vaccinated residents, no caps on numbers of returning vaccinated travellers, and an expansion in the number of student, economic, and humanitarian visa holders allowed to enter. Phase 4 would allow a return to uncapped arrivals, with pre-flight and on-arrival COVID testing required for all non-vaccinated travellers.

A ‘zero COVID’ political calculus?

Australia’s policy of no COVID-19 community transmission – effectively ‘zero COVID’ – requires strict lockdowns whenever COVID is detected outside quarantine facilities. Last week’s lockdowns with close to half the population locked down in multiple cities and regions is the most recent example. The new plan effectively continues the zero-COVID approach for the foreseeable future by ensuring ‘Fortress Australia’ remains shut until the pandemic is all but contained worldwide, a decision supported by nearly three-quarters of Australians, according to a recent poll. Yet many analysts point out that the reopening plan is timed perfectly for the incumbent government to campaign on its popular closed-border record in the next federal election, expected mid-next year, leading many to ask whether the plan is as epidemiologically sound as it is politically sound.