When Will the Borders Open in Australia?

August 13, 2021
Myer Lipschitz

That’s probably one of the most frequently asked questions we receive and in truth, we don’t know. I suspect many of our politicians don’t know either. If that were the whole answer it would lead to a very short blog but we have a better idea of the factors that would determine when the borders are likely to open and it’s all linked to the speed with which we can get to jabbing (twice) 80% of Australians.

For those of you wondering how long it will take before you can visit Australia or obtain approval on your visa, it’s linked to the speed with which Australia can achieve this threshold. Currently 45% of Australians over 16 have had 1 dose, and 23% are fully vaccinated.

An updated four-phase plan for reducing the reliance on lockdowns and increasing freedoms including those of international travel have recently been released by our Prime Minister.

Phase 1

Where Australia is right now is “vaccinate, prepare and pilot” involves suppression (if you are in New South Wales, ‘elimination’ everywhere else – a source of increasing inter State tension) of the virus to minimise the spread in the community. It involves “early, stringent and short lockdowns if outbreaks occur”. Whilst this might still be possible in Victoria with daily cases of approximately 20 I fail to see how it can be implemented in New South Wales unless they are prepared to undergo the type of lockdown we endured last year in Victoria of about three months duration. The fact the virus is still spreading across NSW is all the evidence that not going fast and early is catastrophic.

Phase 2

This is supposed to occur when 70% of people 16 years and older have been vaccinated and with just 22% of Australians having both doses we are a long way from achieving the 70% threshold although the date of the end of 2021 has been mentioned as a likely timetable. Under phase 2, called the “vaccination transition phase”, the aim would be to minimise serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality as a result of Covid-19 “with low-level restrictions”.

Phase 2 would see increased international arrivals and the advent of lockdowns less likely to occur.

Phase 3

Would occur when 80% of over 16’s have been vaccinated. This would be known as the “vaccination consolidation phase”. Lockdowns would be rare and Australians would be receiving vaccine boosters. There would be no domestic travel restrictions and all outbound travel for vaccinated Australians would be permitted and all vaccinated Australians abroad could return to Australia.

The number of international students would also increase and it would be a gradual reopening of inward and outward international travel with “safe” countries and reduced quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated travellers to Australia.

Phase 4

The fourth phase would be the full opening of international borders with the proviso of quarantine for “high risk inbound travel”. All vaccinated people would be able to travel to Australia without being subject to quarantine and nonvaccinated travellers would still be allowed to travel to Australia albeit with Covid testing.

This phase would see Australia living with Covid 19 as it treats any other infectious disease such as the flu.

Unfortunately Covid 19, in particular the Delta variant doesn’t always play by the rules and doesn’t recognise the timelines of the four-phase plan outlined above.

The spread of the Delta variant in New South Wales has been a bit of a game changer, and with new cases of infection in New South Wales running at approximately 360 per day, the prospect of short sharp lockdowns isn’t practical.

I say that from experience because when we had cases of that magnitude in Victoria last year (with the less infectious Covid variant), we had to endure a three month lockdown. The New South Wales Premier has always shown a distinct lack of appetite for a protracted hard lockdown and it seems as if that genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

 In Victoria we have just entered our sixth lockdown with cases running at about 20 per day. If the seven day lockdown is extended for another couple of weeks we could possibly eliminate Covid from the state of Victoria. A colleague had reassured me that “the hardest part of a 7 day lockdown is the first three weeks” and that is such a beautiful quote because it sums up the mistrust Victorians have for these “snap lockdowns”.

The rest of Australia is largely Covid free but the economic consequences of enduring these short (ish) lockdowns in Victoria and New South Wales has dire consequences for the Australian economy, not to mention the mental anguish suffered by those in lockdown, especially parents trying to work from home and home schooling children and business people whose businesses have to close during these lockdowns. The cost to the economy is also considerable. Victoria’s lockdown costs about 100 million dollars per day in lost economic activity and New South Wales approximately 140 million dollars per day.

I realise that to those outside Australia these Covid figures might seem enviable but apart from the state of Victoria, the rest of Australia had largely not experienced prolonged lockdowns, so the number of Covid cases in New South Wales signals, in my opinion, the advent of a new chapter namely learning to live with Covid in Australian society.

Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison acknowledged this when he said he wanted “to get Australia in a position where we are living with the virus” and acknowledged that “there will be deaths”.

That change in narrative is significant as our Prime Minister prepares us for a post pandemic Australia and whilst the slow and deliberate 4 phase plan looks good in theory the spread of the Delta variant has distorted the plan to the extent that everything has sped up to warp speed (Mr Solo). Short sharp lockdowns (at least in NSW) may not be practical and we may have already been propelled into living with Covid in the community. The narrative is starting to sound like Bugs Bunny and I would not be surprised if the Prime Minister ends the next press conference with “That’s all folks” and the Looney Tunes theme playing him out in the background.

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