The Federal Government will this month revisit the national border closures which have blocked overseas travel for almost all Australians, with the prospect of the current ban being extended to June in the face of newer, more virulent strains of COVID-19.
The sweeping restrictions on international flights and the entry of cruise ships into Australia were first enacted in March 2020 under the Biosecurity Act 2015, and have been reviewed on a rolling three-month basis, with the latest 'human biosecurity emergency period' set to end on March 17.
“Under law, these periods may last for up to three months,” a spokesperson for Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told Executive Traveller.
“Further extensions are reviewed approximately four weeks prior to the completion of each period to ensure that the decision-making process is based on the latest epidemiology and expert medical advice.”
The review is guided by the Australian Health Principal Protection Committee (AHPPC) and Professor Paul Kelly, Australia's Chief Medical Officer, whose previous advice has been that COVID-19 "continues to pose an unacceptable public health risk."
In announcing the most recent extension of the ban on December 8 2020, Hunt said "the international world remains a challenging and dangerous environment and Australia won't be fully safe until the international community is safe."
However, land-locked Australians may be afforded a brief escape through 'low-risk' day and overnight domestic cruising on small to medium-sized ships under COVID-safe protocols.
The Government is working with the cruising industry to explore those options, with several companies already selling domestic overnight cruises for later this year.
But the Government is unlikely to permit overnight ‘domestic’ cruising on large-sized international vessels, which continue to be seen as high-risk environments for COVID-19 transmission.
Travel bubbles still an option
When Australia’s international border restrictions are eventually relaxed, overseas travel is likely to make a gradual return, starting with ‘bubble’ arrangements with specific countries such as New Zealand and Singapore.
“It may well be that we start on a country-by-country basis rather than opening up to the entire world, but again it depends what happens over the coming months,” admitted the Australian Government’s Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd, at this week’s CAPA Live summit.
“We want to see a world where COVID-19 is much more under control,” before Australia’s international borders could return to normal, Kidd says.
While some travel bubbles may take off this year, 2022 is looking increasingly more realistic for broader overseas travel, which Kidd doesn’t expect to see this year: a further hint that current border restrictions are likely to be extended again by three months.
“I hope I’m wrong: I hope that things improve dramatically over the months ahead during this year,” Kidd said, when speaking of broader travel prospects in 2022.
But, “I think we need to watch and wait, see what’s happening overseas, and be continually ready to update our plans in light of what happens.”