Australia international border closure: Travel for vaccinated allowed in July? Don't hold your breath

Got your bags packed? Ready to waltz out the door, looking forward to a train ride through the Swiss Alps or a cold-smoke salmon bagel at Russ & Daughters on Manhattan's lower east side?

You just might if you'd read the report in the Australian edition of The Guardian on Tuesday, with the news that Greg Hunt, Minister for Health and Aged Care, revealed a proposal to allow vaccinated Australians to travel overseas and return with less restrictive quarantine conditions.

"Modelling began on Monday and a pilot program could begin in six to eight weeks' time," the report quoted the minister as saying. That would appear to open the tantalising possibility of leisure travel to countries other than New Zealand as early as mid-July or early August.

Godspeed to the minister's intentions, but while I hate to play the killjoy, there are several reasons why it's unlikely to happen within that time frame. When it finally does come to pass, it's going to be a trickle rather than a stampede out the door.

Travel zones

Australia looks to be going down the same road as the UK's traffic light system, dividing the world into green, amber and red zones, and classifying arriving air passengers according to which zone they originate from. At the moment the only green zone country is New Zealand. Anyone who has been in New Zealand for at least 14 days prior to their flight to Australia can enter without the need to quarantine.

The Australian Government classifies the rest of the world as a red zone, and incoming travellers must quarantine on arrival for 14 days.

To make the dream of overseas travel without the need to quarantine on return come true, the government needs to establish which countries can be moved from the red zone and join New Zealand in the green zone or the amber zones. Returning from the amber zone would probably require tests before and after arrival in Australia and possibly the need to quarantine at home or in a designated place.

One risk facing travellers is a spike in infection rates, which could see a country downgraded from green or amber to red. Anyone returning from that country to Australia would be shunted off to face 14 days of quarantine on arrival.

Airfares

The cost of air travel has skyrocketed. A return economy flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles, departing late July and returning in mid-August will cost over $2800 aboard Japan's ANA, one of the cheapest options. The airfare for a one-week stay in Singapore in August flying from Sydney and back is over $2200 with Singapore Airlines. A return economy flight from Sydney to the UK with Singapore Airlines, departing in late July and returning in early August, will cost around $4300. A return flight to the UK aboard Qatar Airways starts at around $2800, but since the UK regards Qatar as a red zone, even transiting through there bars passengers from entry to the UK.

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Where could we go?

Singapore is the most promising candidate to join New Zealand on Australia's list of green zone countries. Except for residents of Victoria, Australians can apply for an Air Travel Pass allowing entry to Singapore for up to seven days. It's not an open-door policy. Applicants must submit health data, take a COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test on arrival and book accommodation for up to two days while waiting for their test result.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is scheduled to visit Singapore on June 10, 2021 en route to a G7 summit in the UK, and a good-news announcement of a quarantine-free travel bubble would help counter the criticism our PM is expected to cop from G7 leaders over Australia's climate-change recidivism. If the Singapore travel bubble inflates, several South Pacific islands could be next on the list.

Even if Australia was to loosen its quarantine restrictions for travellers returning from 'safe' countries, much of the world is closed to us.

Our second most popular destination, Indonesia is closed to foreigners for leisure travel and so is Vietnam. Thailand is welcoming foreign visitors but even those who are fully vaccinated are required to quarantine for seven days.

Australia is one of only a handful of countries on the UK's green zone list. That allows Australian residents to enter the UK without the need to quarantine provided they take a pre-flight COVID-19 test and another test within two days of arriving in the UK. However if they transit through a red zone country – and both the UAE and Qatar are – even if it's just a transit stop without leaving the airport, they're required to quarantine for 10 days. That leaves Singapore, another country on the UK's green zone list, as the logical transit point for a one-stop flight to the UK.

Conditions for entering the US are relatively simple for Australian residents. Show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours prior to your departure and you're in.

Anyone coming from Australia may enter France provided they take a pre-flight PCR test, self-isolate for seven days after arrival and take another PCR test at the end of that period. Arriving in France via the UAE or Qatar would not affect your entry, provided you did not leave the airport's international zone during your transfer stop. Travelling from the UK to France is not possible without 'pressing grounds for travel', and includes a requirement to self-isolate for seven days after arrival.

Italy imposes similar conditions for Australian residents, with a longer self-isolation period of 10 days and daily health surveillance during that period.

Vaccine rollout

Preliminary reports suggest that the government would only allow fully vaccinated travellers to enjoy the possibility of relaxed quarantine conditions on return. So far 4.2 million vaccine doses have been delivered in Australia but most patients who have received the vaccine have only had one dose. At the beginning of June the government announced the beginning of the second-dose campaign for AstraZeneca. Since the Pfizer vaccine is also administered in two doses but within a much tighter time frame of three weeks, the percentage of Australians who are fully vaccinated should increase quickly by the end of July.

Travel insurance

Travel insurance is resurfacing and some insurers are now offering cover tailored to meet the possible disruptions and extra medical cover that might be needed during the pandemic. The usual caveat applies. If your destination has a 'Do not travel' advisory on the Smartraveller website, travel insurance won't cover you - right now that includes everywhere except New Zealand.

See also: Australia should adopt the UK's approach to international travel

See also: What most people don't get about our international borders debate

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