Australians planning to scoot overseas as soon as ‘travel bubbles’ come online are being warned that mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine may still greet them upon returning to Australia.
Depending on the destination, such bubbles may see Australia’s outbound ‘travel exemption’ system relaxed, but other health measures like user-pays quarantine remaining in force for a while longer.
Speaking at today’s CAPA Live summit, the Australian Government’s Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd, explained that Australia’s own quarantine requirements may be influenced by the levels of COVID-19 community transmission and vaccination in each foreign country.
“At the moment, the reason we have the 14 days of quarantine is because it matches the period where people who’ve been infected are likely to develop symptoms, or have an asymptomatic infection and transmit to other people,” says Kidd.
“So, that 14 days may or may not change” for international arrivals.
That’s not to say that every bubble would still see travellers locked in supervised hotels after arriving back home: most Australian states and territories already welcome international arrivals from New Zealand on designated ‘green zone’ flights, for example, which could be expanded to include other countries.
How will Australia choose ‘travel bubble’ destinations?
In recent months, the Australian Government has namechecked a number of countries that could be early candidates for international travel bubbles.
These include Pacific Island destinations such as Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, through to the likes of Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, among others.
To move things forward, Australia is already “carrying out risk assessments on a number of other countries to see how they are doing with control of COVID-19,” Kidd explains.
These assessments cover a review of each country’s COVID-19 testing levels, and the ability for a country to respond to new outbreaks and community transmission – including spikes that occur after previous efforts to minimise transmission.
Of course, the progress of vaccine rollouts, and the types of vaccines used in each country, will also play a part.
For example, countries using the same COVID-19 vaccine types as approved in Australia may find an easier path to a travel bubble, while others could see a slower approvals process.
This could see Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration asked to provide advice on foreign vaccines, such as China's Sino and Russia's Sputnik V, as part of any travel bubble approvals process.
“There’s still a lot to learn, as we see how populations (around the world) respond to these (other) vaccines,” says Kidd.
Will Australia’s vaccine efforts reopen international borders?
Australia now plans to have the entire adult population vaccinated against COVID-19 by October, but this won’t necessarily see Australia’s international borders swung open by November.
In part, that's because children aged 15 years or under may not be vaccinated under the same timeline, given the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine rolling out this month is approved only for use in those aged 16 and above.
“We still don’t have any vaccines which have been licenced to be used in children,” Kidd shares, “and it means that at the moment, we’re unable to immunise a very significant percentage of our population, and a significant percentage of the people who will be on planes.”
“Obviously, the vaccines are going to make a difference … but we don’t know exactly how long it’s going to take before we can move back to a degree of normality with travel.”
Right now, the biggest hurdle is learning more about the ‘unknown’, which can only happen with time.
This includes whether those vaccinated against COVID-19 “can still be infected – be asymptomatic – but still at risk of transmitting the virus to other people,” as well as how long people who have been vaccinated, or who have previously had a COVID-19 infection, would have immunity.
“We are learning more and more every day, and so, hopefully things will become clearer as our vaccination program rolls out over the coming months: but also, as we gain more and more experience from what’s been happening overseas.”
What needs to change for widespread travel to return?
Bubbles aside, returning to the true normality of international travel is something that won’t happen quickly – particularly with Australia taking a cautious approach to COVID-19 as a whole.
“We want to see a world where COVID-19 is much more under control, before many people would feel comfortable getting on an airplane and going to other parts of the world,” says Kidd.
“It may well be that the sort of travel we were used to 12 months ago may look very different … when that eventually returns for many of us,” he adds, citing that wearing masks, physical distancing and good hand hygiene will continue to play a role whenever broader international travel does come back.
Kidd sees 2022 as being a more realistic target for widespread international travel versus 2021, but even then, nothing is set in stone.
“I hope I’m wrong: I hope that things improve dramatically over the months ahead during this year,” he says.
Looking optimistically at Israel – where vaccine rollout is well underway – “we’re already seeing a reduction in the number of people who are getting infected and being symptomatic with COVID-19, in the number of people being admitted to hospital, and in the number of people dying from COVID-19.”
As far as Australia is concerned, “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.”