Australia could be in for another year of international border closures and minimal overseas travel, despite plans to complete nation-wide vaccinations by October.
Health Department chief and former Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy, who drove Australia's response to the coronavirus for much for 2020, has painted a pessimistic outlook for the year ahead.
“I think that we’ll go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions – even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated, we don’t know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus,” Professor Murphy told ABC TV this morning.
While most approved vaccines are highly effective in ensuring their recipients don't fall ill, concerns have arisen over their ability to stop COVID-19 or new variants of the virus from being spread, turning vaccinated people into 'asymptomatic carriers'.
Asked if he expected to see the borders reopened so that international travel could resume, Murphy responded “I think that that is a big question. I think that the answer is probably no.”
“And it’s likely that quarantine will continue for some time. One of the things about this virus is that the rule book has been made up as we go.”
An uncertain restart for overseas travel
Murphy's forecast pours cold water on hopes that Australians could begin hopping onto international flights beyond a handful of similarly COVID-safe destinations such as New Zealand, the Pacific islands, Singapore and other Asian countries with a solid track record in containing the virus.
As previously reported, Qantas has now started selling tickets for international flights from July 1 to Asia, the USA and London, which have largely been suspended since late March 2020.
At the time, a Qantas spokesman told Executive Traveller this reflects its own expectations of the vaccine rollout and “that international travel will begin to restart from July 2021.”
However, the spokesman qualified that “we continue to review and update our international schedule in response to the developing COVID-19 situation.”
This earned a swift rebuke from Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who said "decisions about when international travel resumes will be made by the Australian Government. "International borders will be opened when international arrivals do not pose a risk to Australians."
When can travellers expect vaccination?
Australia's vaccination rollout is due to commence next month, initially using the imported Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the highest-priority cases before switching to the less expensive and locally-manufactured Ozford-AstraZenica jab.
Murphy has previously noted that almost half of Australians would fall within one of the 'priority groups' slated to receive the vaccine in the first half of this year, with people on the non-priority list – including most would-be travellers – following from July.
The majority of the population will receive their shots from special Health Department clinics and participating GP clinics and medical centres; pharmacies could also be able to administer the vaccine during the second half of the year.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says Australia will be “fully vaccinated” by October with the country “on track and ahead of schedule” in the approvals process.
“We expect that Australians will be fully vaccinated by the end of October, on the basis that it’s free, universal and entirely voluntary.”