How to reopen Australia: Experts explain what is needed for post-Covid international travel before mid-2022

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International travel early next year, authorization for home quarantine and a system of traffic lights to define high-risk countries are expected to be part of a plan to reopen Australia to the rest of the world. world, according to experts who spoke to Guardian Australia.

Frustrated by the federal government’s lack of strategy on how and when to ease border restrictions, Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid said the government could open international borders early in the new year if it made vaccinations compulsory. for all those who wish to travel.

He said it was possible to start working on a strategy now based on independent medical advice that prioritized community safety over all other factors.

“It will need to take into account the local immunization rate, both in adults and children, and the ability of the Australian health system to keep up with the continued growth in demand for services, particularly in our public hospitals, while ensuring that there is sufficient surge capacity to deal with future community epidemics, ”he said.

“It will also need to take into account the adequacy of quarantine facilities and the continued effectiveness of vaccines being deployed in Australia to prevent hospitalization and serious illness, including with regard to variants.” “

Khorshid said a key part of the strategy would be compulsory Covid-19 vaccination for outgoing and inbound travelers, with only limited exemptions for defined medical reasons. Dedicated quarantine facilities for those traveling to and from countries considered to be of higher risk should be used, along with rapid screening tests at Australian airports and ports.

He proposed the adoption of a traffic light classification system or similar that sets transparent criteria for the relaxation of borders with individual countries or regions, taking into account the prevalence of Covid-19 – including variants, vaccination rates and confidence in local testing. regimes – as well as containment strategies and data transparency.

Risk mitigation measures should be attached to the traffic light system, including closing borders with very high risk countries and regions, requirements for onshore and offshore testing, and mandatory time to home or in designated quarantine, he said.

Currently, vaccination levels in Australia are too low to consider opening the borders, but that could not go on indefinitely, said Khorshid, offering a public campaign and discussion on reopening to reduce people’s fear and promotion. increased immunization.

“In terms of timing, if a large proportion of the population is vaccinated by the end of the year and our health system is ready, then we could see border closures gradually eased from the start of the new. year, initially targeting low-risk travel. destinations, ”Khorshid said.

Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology in the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University, agreed that a strategy could be developed now.

She said the country could reopen in stages as early as the second half of 2021, initially focusing on expanding the reasons people enter Australia, allowing workers and students to enter and opening new ones. travel bubbles with countries with similar controls and Covid vaccines. adoption.

There could also be a wider range of justifications for leaving Australia and once the queue of returnees queued up, Australians must be able to leave knowing they can return, he said. she declared.

“But the frustrations and increased cost of handling travel bubbles are quickly running out,” she said, meaning the government is expected to announce, by the end of the year, that the borders international organizations will open to vaccinated tourists by March 2021.

“This will make the last of those who are still hesitant to get vaccinated, whether they want to travel themselves or want the protection it offers knowing that the virus will soon be back in the community,” he said. she declared.

Vaccinated travelers should not have to be quarantined, but testing should still be done in high-risk workplaces or for people with severe Covid-like symptoms to track circulating variants and to identify if there are any clusters that might need to be managed by tracing and isolating, she said.

“The state of immunization will become increasingly important and the participation rate is expected to approach 70% by the end of 2021 and will increase again in 2022, as it becomes clearer that those who are vaccinated are those who are leading the queues when we are testing new international travel lanes or reducing them. quarantine requirements, ”Bennett said.

“We will continue to see occasional cases in the community and vaccination will not only protect people from infection, but will also protect them from certain public health orders due to their reduced risk of infection and transmission.”

She agreed with Khorshid that expanding the specially designed quarantine facilities was essential and said this should be completed by the end of the year.

“As the number of people crossing the border increases, we will start to sort people based on risk of infection and transmission to others,” she said.

“Vaccinated returnees will be able to perform tests and be quarantined at home for five to 10 days if they return two negative test results. The hotel quarantine will serve unvaccinated travelers from countries outside the travel bubbles. Cabin-type quarantine will be used for people from high-risk countries with high infection rates or a high prevalence of variants of concern. Anyone who tests positive for a variant of concern in Australia will also self-isolate at these top quarantine centers. “

Professor Stephen Duckett, health economist and director of the Grattan Institute’s health program, said the Victorian government had succeeded in producing a detailed roadmap for reopening the state after experiencing a second wave of Covid- 19 which saw the state in an extended lockdown. They had done so by engaging leading epidemiologists, infectious disease experts and researchers, and the federal government had to do the same to develop a roadmap towards reopening the borders, he said.

“Of course, the first thing to do under the roadmap is to fix the immunization schedule,” Duckett said. “I think one of the reasons people don’t rush to get their shots is because they see the government getting it right after mistake. The government needs to run community-specific campaigns to tackle vaccine hesitancy, but it can only run these campaigns if it knows that the people listening to them can get a reservation when they try to make one. a. “

He said that while the federal budget presumed a gradual reopening in mid-2022, “the prime minister seems to be backtracking on this.”

“I think the real date is sometime after the election because I don’t think the prime minister wants to open before then,” he said.

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