Australians hoping the COVID-19 vaccine will deliver the golden ticket to opening the nation’s borders and resuming international air travel could be getting their hopes up prematurely.
The nation’s top health chief Brendan Murphy has cautioned today that there’s still a long way to go before Australia can return to quarantine free international travel.
And the border ban may need to stay in place for longer until experts know more about how the vaccine works, particularly among carriers who are not showing any symptoms.
The nation’s borders are currently shut until March, 2021, with anyone wishing to travel needing to apply for a special exemption for travel and a two-week quarantine period costing thousands of dollars.
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Asked today whether Australians will be free to travel overseas for holiday and for work next year as soon as the rollout of the vaccine commenced, the Prime Minister said it was still up in the air.
“On the latter point, these are still decisions to be taken,’’ he said before handing the question to the former chief medical officer Brendan Murphy.
Professor Murphy, who now runs the Health Department, then added that it could be another year before we know more about exactly how the vaccine works in terms of travellers who may have the virus without showing symptoms.
“We still don’t know what the vaccines will do in terms of complete – prevention of transmission of the virus,” Dr Murphy said.
“So the vaccines can prevent disease. We know that very clearly. The extent to which they will effectively prevent, for example, asymptomatic transmission or people bringing the virus with them when they travel, we still have to find out.
“So this is an evolving place and there may well come a time when we have evidence that vaccines are very good at preventing people contracting the infection and in that circumstance it may be appropriate to allow quarantine free travel.”
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Dr Murphy added that it could be another 12 months before experts really know the answer.
“I think over the course of next calendar year, as we get more and more information on more and more vaccines we will have a much clearer picture,’’ Dr Murphy said.
The Prime Minister said Australia will not rush the accreditation approval of vaccines in Australia.
“Australia has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world. The reason for that is we take these issues incredibly seriously and we have the best people in the world making those decisions to protect the safety of Australians,’’ he said.
“We want to ensure that Australians, and I think all of us feel very strongly this way, have full confidence, absolute full confidence that when it gets the tech they can get the jab. And they can make that decision for themselves and for their families confidently. So we are aware of what is happening in other states, in other nations around the world. We have a front-row seat, frankly, as they go through that.”
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Professor Murphy said there was no reason for Australia to rush the vaccine, given that the virus was largely under control and dormant.
“We are not in the position of having to do emergency use registration for a vaccine, which is how the Pfizer vaccine has been reached in those countries,’’ he said.
On a brighter note, the PM said the rollout of the vaccine could make it easier for more Australians to return home from overseas.
“We will continue to monitor through contact directly with people overseas about the need to return home. That may change over the next month,” he said.
“That may change as vaccines are introduced, particularly in the United Kingdom, which is one of the key areas where Australians are seeking to come home from.”
Nearly 40,000 Australians are currently registered and hoping to return home and nearly one in four of those expats are stranded in India.