Coronavirus: Federal government under growing pressure to open Australian borders

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

As Australia sluggishly passes the 3-million-COVID-19 vaccination milestone, the federal government is under growing pressure from business leaders, top health officials and some state leaders over its vague timeline for the reopening of the international border.

While attaining herd immunity from a population-wide vaccination program is generally regarded as the key to reopening borders - and Australia's vaccine rollout is far from complete and in need of a significant ramp up to be done by the end of the year - the federal government is being lent on now to provide the certainty of a road map for reopening international borders.

The path to relaxing domestic border controls is now being actively considered by the nation's leaders as a first step, while the federal budget contains an assumption, based on health advice, that international borders will gradually open by mid-next year.

Virgin Australia's chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka has warned that Australia risks being left behind by the rest of the world.

"Covid will be part of the community, we will become sick with Covid and it won't put us in hospital, and it won't put people into dire straits because we'll have a vaccine," Ms Hrdlicka told a business forum in Brisbane.

"Some people may die, but it will be way smaller than with the flu.

"We're forgetting the fact that we've learned how to live with lots of viruses and challenges over the years and we've got to learn how to live with this."

The New South Wales government now wants more "ambition," specifically a timeline.

"I hope that if the vaccine rollout is better than anticipated, that date can be brought forward," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

"But we appreciate the community has concerns about safety as do we.

"I would never, ever make a decision that compromises the safety of the community but we also need to be ambitious."

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But the Prime Minister Scott Morrison is resisting such calls. He says he is continuing a popular and so far effective "cautious approach" to keeping Australia's international border shut.

"It's not one day the borders are open, one day the borders are closed. That's not how it works," Mr Morrison said on Monday.

"There's a sliding sort of scale here. And we're working on the next steps. Now, it's not safe to take those next steps right now. It's not. But we'll keep working on what the next steps are."

The Prime Minister has a growing internal issue to grapple with. At least three Coalition backbenchers, Jason Falinski, Tim Wilson and Dave Sharma, are very keen to bestow international travel freedom to vaccinated Australians.

Mr Wilson told The Canberra Times his view that international border closures were "not sustainable and will turn us into a hermit outpost" was a statement of the obvious. He says he is not calling for an earlier reopening.

The former deputy Chief Medical Officer and infectious diseases expert, Nick Coatsworth, last week penned an opinion piece urging an open international border "when the time is right."

Australia has been officially following a suppression strategy, but effectively enacting one of elimination.

Dr Coatsworth called Covid elimination out as a "false idol".

"It is clear we will not have our borders closed indefinitely, we will not have quarantine stations in perpetuity while we aim for the false idol of eradication, and we need to come to terms with the idea that we cannot, nor do we need to, ride this one out in an eliminationist bunker," he wrote in Nine newspapers.

"At a point in the future when a significant majority of our community is vaccinated, there will be pressure to open our borders. We must not resist that, in fact, when the time is right, we should be leading the calls for it."

The next step for Australians will be changes to domestic border controls. Australians can travel freely if there are no COVID-19 hot spots or lockdowns, but once the vaccination program is regarded as successful, domestic restrictions could be wound down during future outbreaks for fully vaccinated people.

It is a matter for national cabinet, but the federal government "strongly supports" it as a goal.

"I think the PM is absolutely in the direction of that as a nation," federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said.

The following step, would be facilitating the return of international students and specialist workers from overseas, but according to the Prime Minister, "right now, it's not safe to be flicking the switch on those."

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This story Morrison facing increased pressure to reopen borders first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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