Australia ‘Epidemiologically mad': Experts raise concerns on quarantine-free travel
International borders are reopening and you can soon book that overseas holiday. But what happens if you get COVID-19 while you're away?
As Australia prepares to reopen international borders for fully vaccinated travellers, many are planning their next getaway. But before you start packing, there are a few other things you need to consider.But the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we travel, and guaranteed that trips are going to take a lot more admin in future.
One of Australia's leading pandemic authorities says a government plan to scrap quarantine for fully vaccinated international arrivals is ‘epidemiologically mad', as experts warn Christmas will be a COVID-19 super-spreading event.
As Victoria approaches its double-dose vaccination milestone, health experts have urged state and federal governments to be cautious and agile while restrictions ease, particularly as the nation opens up its borders.
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The Women's Tennis Association on Sunday told its unvaccinated players in an internal email they will need to spend two weeks in hotel quarantine before competing in Melbourne. By contrast, the email said fully-vaccinated players will have 'complete freedom of movement' other than being tested for Covid before and after their arrival.The grand slam is set to be held in January with defending men's champion Novak Djokovic - a strong critic of Australia's quarantine system who has said he is 'opposed to vaccination' - chasing a record 21st title.
"Quarantine-free travel - where vaccinated Australian citizens return to the states and the country, regardless of where they're travelling from - is epidemiologically mad," said University of Melbourne public health specialist Professor Tony Blakely.
"Let's imagine in March next year that Canada has a really big outbreak and there's a planeload of Australian citizens coming back. Will we really let them all in quarantine-free just because they are vaccinated? I hope not."
Professor Blakely's comments come days after Victoria announced it would scrap hotel quarantine for fully vaccinated international arrivals from November 1. NSW did the same earlier, with new Premier Dominic Perrottet declaring that Australia could no longer live as a "hermit kingdom".
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As international borders slowly reopen, Australians are being urged to use a travel agent to rebook their cancelled holidays to ensure they don't lose out.Australian Federation of Travel Agents chief executive Dean Long said the complexity of overseas travel restrictions, including different vaccination passports, will make using a knowledgeable travel agent more important than ever.
"And the reason for that is that, at 80 per cent, 90 per cent [vaccination rates] - which is where we're going to get to - we are as protected as we can be," Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne last week.
Under the previous system, anyone arriving from overseas under Australia's strict flight caps had to isolate in a hotel for 14 days. From November 1, those arriving in Victoria will have to show they are fully vaccinated and take a test on arrival. Anyone who tests positive will isolate at home.
But Professor Blakely warned that even vaccinated people were not fully immune from coronavirus and urged governments to rethink the policy if it led to a surge of infections.
He suggested that if there was an increase in cases, governments should introduce measures such as requiring vaccinated returning Australians to get a booster shot if it had been months since their last dose, or making those from high-risk countries quarantine until testing negative.
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Mark O'Reilly welcomes the announcement of home quarantine in the Northern Territory, as it means his three sons who are studying in Melbourne will be home for Christmas.Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced the program on Monday.
University of Melbourne clinical epidemiologist Professor Nancy Baxter also called for a risk-based strategy, where international arrivals were measured on the danger their country of origin posed at the time of their flight.
"For the Premier to announce on the fly a blanket rule that there will no longer be a quarantine for vaccinated international arrivals is a ridiculous thing," she said. "It isn't something that a country that has good management of the pandemic does. It should be based on sound medical advice in terms of what's safe."
Professor Baxter noted that in the UK, health officials were keeping a close watch on a new descendant of the Delta variant, which appears to be about 15 per cent more infectious than its predecessor.
"We now potentially might have a new variant, which seems like it might be the real deal," she said.
"It may be that we can't avoid it coming into Australia. But if there is a country with a lot of people who have a highly infectious strain it is not a safe thing to just let them in without quarantining."
But infectious diseases expert at the National University of Singapore and leading adviser to the World Health Organisation, Dale Fisher, said the time for international borders and strenuous stints in quarantine was over.
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"They played a role and that was to keep the virus out, but that role has passed," Professor Fisher said.
"There are 1500 cases a day being reported in Victoria. You're just as likely to catch the virus from eating out in a restaurant in Melbourne as you are from a Singoporean traveller."
Professor Fisher said the focus must now shift from quarantining international travellers to protecting the healthcare system from a predicted surge in coronavirus cases among the millions of Australians who remain unvaccinated.
Asked about the potential for super-spreading events over the Christmas period, Professor Baxter and Professor Fisher both agreed there was a real danger.
With the unvaccinated largely locked out of pubs, restaurants and shopping centres in Victoria, Professor Fisher warned the biggest dangers for superspreading events were posed by household gatherings and Christmas parties.
"This is where the unvaccinated will get infected and they pose the biggest risk to the healthcare system," he said.
Professor Blakely had no doubt about the risk. "We know that Christmas will be a superspreader event," he said. "We have to be prepared and agile going forward."
The federal government has been contacted for comment.
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Vaccinated tourists from Singapore to be allowed into Australia .
It will be the first time tourists from the Asian country have been allowed to come to Australia since March, 2020. READ MORE: Everything you need to know about international travel © Getty Flight SQ237 from Singapore receives a water canon salute on the tarmac at Tullamarine Airport on November 1, 2021 in Melbourne, as quarantine-free travel begin for Aussies. They won't have to quarantine and will only initially be able to travel to Sydney and Melbourne, due to the removal of hotel quarantine and flight caps.