After 18 months of some of the toughest border restrictions in the world, Australia is set to relax its travel ban on Covid-19.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday that the island state will allow some international travel from next month, as he is turning away from the strict “zero covid” strategy.
The pandemic guidelines have kept infection rates well below those of the United States, but have also created frustration as families have been separated and travelers have struggled to navigate complicated and expensive quarantine procedures.
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Tens of thousands of citizens and permanent residents were unable to enter “Fortress Australia” at all and missed weddings and funerals while stranded abroad due to strict limits on the number allowed per week.
“The time has come to give Australians their lives back,” said Morrison. “We are preparing for it and Australia will be ready to go very soon.”
The changes will allow Australian citizens and permanent residents to travel abroad once 80 percent of the local adult population is vaccinated. This means that the country’s eight states and territories can reopen on different schedules.
Vaccinated travelers must complete a seven-day home quarantine on their return to Australia, while unvaccinated travelers must spend 14 days in the quarantine hotel system that has been in place since March 2020.
The country is still not open to foreign visitors, but the government said it is working to welcome them back in due course.
The move was greeted by Alex Leon, 29, an Australian citizen who lives in London. He said his father was sick during the pandemic and he couldn’t travel home to see him.
“The toll on my mental and emotional health has been unprecedented,” he said, adding that his father has made a full recovery. However, he said he would “be reluctant to ever forgive the Australian government that put me in this position because I am an Australian citizen”.
Qantas Airways, the Australian airline, said after Morrison’s announcement on Friday that it would resume some international flights in mid-November, a month ahead of schedule.
The country of 25 million people has reported about 107,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 1,311 deaths. according to dates from Johns Hopkins University.
Vaccination rates have risen amid an outbreak fueled by the Delta variant of the virus, which has been banned for weeks in the country’s largest cities, including Sydney and Melbourne.
With 55 percent of Australians aged 16 and over fully vaccinated and initial dose rates approaching 80 percent, Morrison said Friday that the government had finalized plans to reopen to the world.
Only those vaccinated with a government-approved vaccination can enter and leave the country.
Authorities had previously approved four vaccines, including Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Morrison said Friday that two more had been added to the list – China’s Sinovac and India’s Covishield.
New South Wales, which also includes Sydney, is likely to be the first region to reopen and is one of two states that are already testing home quarantine periods.
Other parts of Australia, where states have also closed their borders to one another, are resisting the idea of reopening for fear that they will experience the kind of major outbreaks they have been able to avoid so far.
Morrison added that Australia will also work to achieve quarantine-free travel with certain countries and the resumption of its travel bubble with neighboring New Zealand, which was suspended in July amid Delta-driven outbreaks in both countries.
Like Australia, New Zealand closed its border at the start of the pandemic and put in place a rigorous system of testing, contact tracing and quarantine that kept case numbers low but excluded thousands of New Zealanders from their own country.
Quarantine bookings were suspended during the country’s Delta outbreak, leaving tens of thousands of people behind, vying for limited spots and potentially unable to return before the end of the year.