Covid-19 lockdown lessons from Australia: 'Fortress' approach risks creating 'hermit outpost'

In addition to banning non-Australian citizens and residents from entering, the authorities imposed caps on the numbers of Australians who can return from overseas. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - When the first Covid-19 cases were recorded in Australia last year, the nation - like much of the world - was quick to close its borders. But, unlike most other countries, it has shown little interest in re-opening them.

Instead, the federal government has adopted a "Fortress Australia" approach, imposing some of the world's strictest measures to prevent people - including its own citizens - from entering or leaving the country.

In addition to banning non-Australian citizens and residents from entering, the authorities have also imposed caps on the numbers of Australians who can return from overseas. This has forced airlines to limit capacity on their flights, which has made it harder to secure tickets into the country and has led to exorbitant ticket prices. Those who do make it into Australia still have to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, typically at their own cost.

Australia is also one of the few countries to ban its own citizens from travelling abroad. Australians who want to leave must seek an exemption from the Department of Home Affairs. Despite the world now vaccinating and looking to resume international travel, Australia has bucked the trend, signalling that it is in no rush to reopen its borders or change the current travel rules.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that the borders are expected to remain shut until the middle of next year and will then open gradually.

Defending his "cautious" approach, he told reporters two weeks ago: "Australia has done incredibly well throughout the course of the pandemic and we have been able to not only save lives, but save livelihoods as well, and Australians want to see that continue."

Australia has largely succeeded in combating Covid-19 through strict lockdowns and tight border measures. The state of Victoria imposed a stringent seven-day lockdown on Thursday following a local outbreak of 26 cases.

But the nation's vaccination roll-out has been slow, leading to further reticence to reopen borders. Indeed, the national carrier Qantas, which has been hit hard by the border closures, has been considering offering incentives such as travel vouchers or frequent flyer points to those who receive two vaccine doses.

Australia recently opened a quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand. The government has flagged that it wants to explore opening further such bubbles with Singapore and other countries, though such arrangements are unlikely to happen soon, especially following outbreaks in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia. It is also looking to find ways to admit international students after coming under pressure from universities.

Still, the nation is divided over the government's cautious "fortress approach". A Newspoll survey found 73 per cent of Australians believe the border should remain shut until at least the middle of next year or until the pandemic is under control globally, with just 21 per cent saying borders should open when all Australians who want to be are vaccinated. The rest were undecided.

But the fortress approach has met with growing criticism from experts and commentators.

Political commentator Paul Kelly said the public's "obsession with Fortress Australia" risks hurting the travel sector and business investment and is jeopardising the government's plans to ensure a post-pandemic economic recovery.

"The hermit-like prejudice of the majority is a huge recovery risk," he wrote in The Australian.

Critics of the closures also include Members of Parliament from Mr Morrison's ruling coalition, like Mr Tim Wilson, who warned that Australia risks becoming a "hermit outpost". He told The Sydney Morning Herald: "While public sentiment may still support closures now, it will change as people are vaccinated and business people need to travel, families need to be united and we come to realise how much it is costing our country."

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