After more than 18 months of COVID-19 isolation, Australia is preparing to reopen its international borders by Christmas “at the latest.” Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Dan Tehan said some of the world’s toughest coronavirus travel restrictions would be relaxed when 80% of Australians are fully vaccinated. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australia has some of the world’s toughest coronavirus travel restrictions. Since March 2020, entry has been banned for most foreign nationals, while quotas have been put on returning citizens and permanent residents, who face two weeks’ mandatory hotel quarantine when they arrive.

Australians wanting to leave the country need government permission under strict rules implemented in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Under a national reopening plan, Australians would be allowed to freely travel overseas again once 80% of people over 16 have been fully vaccinated. Just under half of the population has received two doses of a vaccine currently. The government also plans to allow returning Australians who have received approved vaccines — AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — to quarantine at home.

Australia plans to begin a trial of vaccine passports to facilitate travel to various countries including the United States, Britain, Singapore and Japan. The digital documents, which would indicate that the holder has been fully inoculated, would be linked to so-called QR Codes, or type of bar code on a phone app. When scanned they would show a copy of a passenger's passport and their vaccination status.

Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Dan Tehan hopes to have the system ready by late December.

"We continue to do all that preparatory work so that when those international borders open, and as I said in my speech, hopefully at the latest by Christmas, that Australians will be able to travel with a QR code linked to their passport, which will be able to show a proof of vaccination,” said Tehan.

Fully immunized foreigners would also be allowed to travel to Australia if they can prove their COVID-19 vaccination status. As an alternative to mandatory hotel quarantine, international travelers could self-isolate with family, friends or at their holiday accommodation.

Australia’s strict COVID-19 travel regulations have left many citizens and permanent residents stranded overseas. More than 44,000 Australians have registered to come home with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Many airlines, including Singapore airlines, recently cut commercial flights to Australia because of cuts to the number of Australians allowed home each week.

Australia is the only democratic country to refuse entry to its citizens due to capacity constraints in the hotel quarantine system and impose restrictions on those wanting to leave the country.

Australia has recorded about 90,000 coronavirus infections and 1,186 fatalities since the pandemic began.

Source: Voice of America