Reopening of international borders reflects Australia’s progress on COVID-19
There may be few more promising signs that a degree of normalcy is about to return to Australia than the Prime Minister’s surprise announcement on Friday that the phased reopening of international borders will begin around November. This is a welcome, necessary and sufficiently cautious move that reflects Australia’s progress towards meeting its pivotal 80% vaccination target, although key aspects of implementing the plan remain unclear.
When the Morrison government closed the country’s borders in March 2020, Australians found themselves subject to some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 travel restrictions. Despite the heavy economic toll – the Business Council estimates the cost of border closures at around $ 7.6 billion per month – and the immeasurable grief of people separated from their loved ones abroad, Australians have rightly argued for a closure that has worked to our natural advantage as an island nation. As Scott Morrison said on Friday, the border closure saved lives and, by allowing parts of the national economy to remain open, saved livelihoods. But, as Mr Morrison likes to say, “it’s time to bring Australians back to life”.
The first phase of the reopening plan will lift the ban on Australians leaving the country. The reasons for such a ban, under which Australians must seek hard-to-obtain exemptions for critical business or humanitarian reasons if they are to leave the country, have never been adequately explained, with the exception of a circular argument that if people are allowed to leave they will seek to return, adding to the pressure on the hotel quarantine system.
Inexplicably, in August the government further tightened the rules for visiting Australians living abroad, effectively barring them from leaving the country, a move that has seen some people “escape” via third countries.
Under the new rules, vaccinated citizens and permanent residents wishing to return from overseas will be allowed to self-isolate at home for seven days instead of having to endure 14 days in hotel quarantine at their own expense. The news will be a huge relief for the 40,000 Australians stranded abroad and at the mercy of fluctuating arrivals ceilings – an already low intake was cut in half in July in response to the Delta outbreak. And too often, in a blatant display of unfairness, celebrities, sportsmen and women in Hollywood have been allowed to skip the line.
Reopening earlier than planned is politically convenient for the government as it intensifies pressure on Western Australia and Queensland over border closures. Despite commitments in national cabinet that states would reopen their borders after meeting the 80% vaccination target, the two state prime ministers are understandably reluctant to expose their predominantly COVID-free populations to the Delta strain.
West Australia’s Prime Minister Mark McGowan has said he will commit to a date for welcoming international travelers once the state reaches an immunization rate of between 80 and 90%. Meanwhile, travel company Flight Center has threatened to take legal action against national border closures if Washington state, Queensland and Tasmania do not develop a plan to open their borders in the coming weeks. The prime ministers in question are right to prioritize the safety of their citizens, but that necessarily means catching up with the rest of the country in vaccinations once the supply is assured. Australians are unlikely to accept as a short-term compromise that they will be free to enter and leave the country, but not to move between states. The novelty of the absurd can only last for a while.
Finally, it should be recognized that Fortress Australia has inflicted an invisible psychological toll. This has arguably made our multicultural nation with a globalized economy more fearful and inward-looking, to the occasional detriment of Australia’s international standing and social cohesion. The latter was evident during the COVID outbreak in India when the government threatened citizens who returned home with prison sentences.
The reopening of the country’s borders will undoubtedly bring new moral and logistical challenges, but the time for Australia to take the first steps towards joining the global community has surely come.
The Herald Editor-in-Chief Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To receive it in your inbox, please sign up here.