Most Australians will remain banned from international travel until at least March 2021, following an extension of the 'biosecurity emergency period' which enables the Federal Government to place restrictions on overseas flights and cruise ships.
"The emergency period, which has been in place since 18 March 2020, is now set to cease on 17 March 2021," said Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.
This will mark a full 12 months since the country's borders where slammed shut in the face of COVID-19.
In that time, just over 95,000 Australian residents have been permitted to leave the country after obtaining an exemption from the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force.
Hunt said the government continued to act on "specialist medical and epidemiological advice provided by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer."
"The disease is spreading as quickly as ever," Hunt added.
"The international world remains a challenging and dangerous environment and Australia won't be fully safe until the international community is safe."
Vaccinations from March 2021
March 2021 is also when Hunt expects the first shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be made available, pending approval by the independent Therapeutic Goods Administration.
The government has earmarked 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which would cover a maximum 5 million people given the vaccine requires a two-jab regime – one as a starter, the second as a booster.
Injections will be free to all Australians and Medicare-eligible visa holders, although they won't be mandatory.
Under the government's National Vaccination Policy, shots would first be issued to front-line healthcare and aged care workers and quarantine staff whose jobs put them at increased risk of exposure and transmission.
Next on the list will be people with a heightened risk of contracting a severe case of Covid-19 due to their age or underlying health conditions.
Injections will then roll out to what are described as "essential services workers": a group not yet fully defined but encompasses "key occupations" providing services "critical to societal functioning".
With those three bases covered, any member of the public – a group highly likely to include would-be overseas travellers – could line up for a shot.
Three other promising vaccine candidates lined up by the government are from Oxford/AstraZeneca (34m), Novavax (40m) and the University of Queensland (51m).
"Our national goal is to ensure that all Australians who seek to be vaccinated are vaccinated by the end of 2021," Hunt has said, adding that "we will not be out of this until we have a nation which has had a full vaccination program."
Compulsory vaccination for travellers?
Australia’s National Vaccination Policy has also suggested that visitors to Australia may be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or face two weeks of user-pays hotel quarantine.
Exceptions would likely be made for New Zealand and potentially other countries involved in a COVID-safe ‘travel bubble’, along with passengers who qualify for a medical exemption.
"Australia’s success at virtually eliminating COVID means we’ll need a vaccine for international travel to restart properly," Joyce noted during a market update last week.
"Once a safe and effective vaccine becomes readily available, it will be a requirement for travel on our international services."
Joyce said the airline is currently working with other carriers and the industry as to what form this ‘COVID vaccination passport’ would take, such as a digital travel pass app.
“The Government is working through how vaccines will be registered technically and how a digital passport and digital requirements will be managed, but we have a number of months before detail needs tot be finalised.”