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Will Australia and NZ be the world’s last to open up travel?

March 8, 2021 Coronavirus (Covid-19), Headline News No Comments Email Email

A suggestion that much of the world could open up to international travel, while Australia and New Zealand continue to seal themselves off, sounded far-fetched when I first heard it – but it is disturbingly possible, writes Peter Needham.

The theory was mentioned by an Australian long-term resident of the UK, who visited Australia recently for family reasons, flying Qatar Airways. He underwent quarantine on arrival and returned home to London last week. Others have backed the theory.

The scenario goes like this:

Australia and New Zealand, through contact tracing and mandatory hotel quarantine, have done far better at containing Covid-19 than most other countries. Their success has set the bar very high. Public expectation is that the governments of Australia and New Zealand will keep Covid-19 at bay until the disease is finally conquered by vaccines (anti-vaxxers permitting) or by global herd immunity, however long that may take.

Australasia’s success in dealing with the coronavirus is the reason, ironically, why the region could be one of the last parts of the world to open up to international travel on any significant scale – a process that would involve dropping the requirement for mandatory quarantine.

So far, Covid-19 has killed a total of 535,563 people in the US, 157,693 people in India, 262,948 people in Brazil, 124,261 people in Britain, 88,274 people in France and 99,271 people in Italy. Plus 37,154 people in Indonesia.

In the same time span, Australia and New Zealand have got off lightly. Since Covid-19 began its deadly rampage about a year ago, it has killed 909 people in Australia and 26 people in New Zealand. That’s 935 in total. For comparison, 1674 people died of Covid-19 in Britain just last week. Mortality in Brazil from the disease is currently running at 1250 deaths every day.

New Zealand and Australia could, in coming months, open up to each other, permitting trans-Tasman travel without quarantine. Everyone hopes so. The survival of the travel industry may depend on it.

Europe could open up too – to other European countries. Britain and EU nations are battling Covid-19 with a cocktail of masks, mass vaccination, distancing, quarantine and hand hygiene.

Current lockdown restrictions in the UK ban Britons from travelling abroad on holidays, but 30% of the British population has now been vaccinated, the vaccine is working well, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said international flights from Britain can probably resume from 17 May. EasyJet ticket sales more than quadrupled within hours of Johnson saying that. Huge European tour operator TUI saw its holiday bookings to Spain, Turkey and Greece leap sixfold overnight. Airline shares rose swiftly.

The point is – for a lot of those countries, if they can reduce their number of Covid-19 cases to a few hundred a week, and bring deaths down to a dozen or so a day, they will think they are doing really well. If their citizens then travel abroad to visit countries performing along similar lines in controlling Covid, they will face no greater risk than if they stayed at home.

But imagine the reaction in Australia and New Zealand if Covid-19 cases started running at a few hundred a week, with deaths at a dozen or so a day!

The risk of catching Covid-19 in Australia or New Zealand is negligible. Aussies and Kiwis would face a far greater risk of catching the coronavirus if they visited say, Europe, North America or much of Asia. Inbound tourism to Australasia without quarantine presents a similarly unacceptable risk to Australians and New Zealanders, so it’s banned.

International travel for business or leisure will not return, essentially, until the requirement for quarantine is removed. Yet it’s hard to imagine either Australia or New Zealand abolishing quarantine while the incidence of Covid-19 is so much higher in the rest of the world.

Voters have shown they favour caution; they value protection from Covid. This was demonstrated by Jacinda Ardern’s thumping victory in New Zealand and by Annastacia Palaszczuk’s win in Queensland. Both leaders reacted quickly in sealing borders against the virus. Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan’s resounding victory this coming weekend in the state polls (considered a certainty) is likely to prove the point once again. When it comes to closing the WA state border to keep out coronavirus, McGowan has an itchy trigger finger. As a result, life in WA is almost like pre-Covid normal, and the people there love it.

Most voters no doubt consider that keeping their families safe from Covid-19 is more important than the freedom to enjoy long-haul international travel. So, when will Australia and New Zealand open up to the rest of the world? Don’t hold your breath. That’s the theory.

Written by Peter Needham

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