Australia eyes Covid-19 vaccination entry requirement

Australia currently requires returning travellers from overseas to quarantine for two weeks. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia will likely require international arrivals to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or face a prolonged quarantine, as officials sketch out what "new normal" virus restrictions may look like.

Although "no final decision" had been made on how to proceed when a vaccine becomes available, Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt suggested on Tuesday (Nov 24) that a vaccination or a strict two-week quarantine would be a condition for entry.

The comments came as Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said international travellers would need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to fly with the Australian flag carrier.

"We are looking at changing our terms and conditions to say for international travellers that we will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft," he told Channel Nine television.

"Whether you need that domestically, we will have to see what happens."

Health minister Hunt said: "We would expect that people coming to Australia whilst Covid-19 is a significant disease in the world will either be vaccinated or they will isolate."

For eight months Australia has been virtually closed off from the rest of the world, with a blanket ban on non-residents entering the country and citizens strongly advised against all foreign travel.

But with promising results in vaccine trials, Hunt suggested Australians might start receiving doses as early as March.

Joyce predicted the airline rule would likely become standard practice around the world.

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Australia's Qantas Airways will insist in future that international travellers have a Covid-19 vaccination before they fly, describing the move as "a necessity" on Monday (Nov 23).

Other major regional airlines, however, said it was too early to comment on what travel requirements might be when a vaccine becomes widely available.

"We don't have any concrete plans to announce at this point on the vaccine as it is still in development and will take time to distribute," a Korean Air representative told Agence France-Presse.

Japan Airlines similarly said it had "no plans to require international travellers to have a vaccination".

Vaccination entry requirements are already widely used around the world, with many countries demanding travellers show they have been inoculated against yellow fever if they are coming from regions where that disease is endemic.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced late Monday it was in the "final stages" of developing a digital health pass that it says can be used to record Covid-19 tests or vaccinations and will "support the safe reopening of borders".

Australia closed its international borders in March during the first wave of the pandemic and currently requires returning travellers from overseas to quarantine for two weeks.

The global airline industry has come under huge pressure from restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Qantas has grounded more than 200 planes and fired 8,500 staff as it attempts to offset a US$1.9 billion (S$2.55 billion) loss caused by the collapse in demand for air travel.

A slew of other carriers have collapsed because of the pandemic, including Virgin Australia, Chilean-Brazilian airline LATAM and Britain's Flybe.

The IATA said in October that after a predicted 66 per cent drop in global air traffic this year, airlines' revenues are expected to be down by 46 per cent in 2021 compared to 2019.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said Australia is seeking to create "travel bubbles" with other countries that have curbed the spread of the virus.

But the country is unlikely to fully reopen to international travellers until a vaccine is widely available.

The government also signalled in its recently released Covid-19 vaccination policy that Australia and other nations may introduce proof of inoculation as a condition of entry.

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