We now have an answer to one of the big questions in Australia’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week’s Budget Papers predicted that the international border will not open until mid-2022. I don’t think anyone wanted to hear we will have to wait more than a year to see the reopening of Australia’s international border.
Under pressure from the NSW Government this week, the Prime Minister said that the rate of international arrivals is constrained by state and territory quarantine caps. Once again, the Prime Minister pinned the blame for Federal Government’s quarantine failures on the states, which have done the heavy lifting throughout the pandemic to quarantine arrivals.
Could it be that the Prime Minister is trying to dampen down our expectations because he knows that it won’t be safe to open the international border until millions more Australians are vaccinated against Covid-19?
This is about more than Aussies taking holidays overseas (personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about Spain lately). For the workers whose jobs depend on international borders and who remain exposed by the Federal Government’s slow vaccine rollout, this is about lives and livelihoods.
Even the mid-2022 predicted date assumes that Australia’s vaccine rollout goes to plan. But it isn’t going to plan. Weeks after unions sounded the alarm over the rollout in aged care and disability care, there are still too few residents and workers receiving their vaccines.
Last week, the Guardian reported ongoing confusion in the sector, with the government’s plans still unclear to workers, unions, and facilities themselves. In-reach teams that were meant to provide vaccinations to aged care workers in their facilities did not turn up. Aged care workers under the age of 50 are being told to go elsewhere for their vaccine, calling for greater transparency from the Federal Government. As of Monday, only 999 people with disability in residential care had received a vaccination. Only 1526 support workers had received at least one coronavirus vaccine.
Leaks from hotel quarantine remain a persistent fear amongst health officials and in the community, and another reason not to open the borders. What should have been a temporary measure to help prevent Covid-19 from entering the Australian community has become an ongoing liability. Once again, it’s the Commonwealth that’s been lagging, with new guidelines tightening the rules around mask-wearing for hotel quarantine workers only implemented this week.
The snail’s pace vaccine rollout means Australia, once lauded internationally for the strength of its response to coronavirus, is now falling behind some of the nations that saw the worst death tolls and biggest economic damage during the pandemic.
Europe has already said it will open borders to the USA and is also thinking about allowing tourists from the UK in over the summer. The Australian tourism sector is looking on in envy. The industry is begging the Federal Government for certainty about the border reopening, warning that Australian tourism risks being ‘left behind’ as other nations come out of lockdowns.
Our universities are suffering, with 35,000 jobs lost in universities in the year to November 2020. For universities, driven to greater and greater dependence on international students by Federal funding cuts, this will only get worse the longer the borders remain closed. As writer and academic Jenna Price put it in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, “the university system in this country is dying”.
Morrison says keeping the border closed part of his ‘cautious approach’ to coronavirus. Yet this ‘cautious approach’ was hardly in evidence last year, when Coalition ministers were demanding Victoria cut short its Covid-19 lockdown, or when Morrison went to the football while Premiers called for greater social distancing.
The Prime Minister has tried to turn the “health versus economy” debate of last year on its head, reinventing himself in the process. But, just like last year, this debate rests on a false dichotomy. It’s not health or the economy. Australians’ good health will underpin economic recovery. Vaccination is the precondition of opening our borders and supporting the workers whose jobs depend on international travel. So let’s get on with it.