SYDNEY - Australia has said it could keep its external borders closed for the rest of 2021 because of the coronavirus. 28,721 coronavirus cases have been reported in Australia since the pandemic began. 909 people have died, according to the Health Department.
Australia closed its international borders to foreign travelers in March. It’s been a key part of the nation’s COVID-19 strategy, along with mass testing, sophisticated contact tracing and strict lockdowns.
The cautious response to the pandemic has been mostly successful. There are estimated to be 203 active coronavirus cases in Australia, and airlines had hoped overseas travel would resume as early as July. But that is unlikely, according to the head of the health department, professor Brendan Murphy.
He was asked by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. if the nation’s international border controls would be relaxed this year.
“The answer is probably no," he said. "I think we will go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions even, you know, if we have a lot of the population vaccinated. We do not know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus and it is likely that quarantine will continue for some time. So, I think at the moment we have got this light at the end of the tunnel — the vaccines. So, we are going to go as safely and as fast as we can to get our population vaccinated and then we will look at what happens.”
An inoculation campaign is set to begin in Australia next month.
Citizens, permanent residents and some foreign nationals with exemptions are allowed to enter Australia if they complete a 14-day hotel quarantine at their own expense. However, there are strict quotas on the number of travelers allowed to return home because of capacity constraints within the hotel system and concerns about the spread of the highly contagious British strain of coronavirus.
This month, authorities have granted entry to about 1,200 tennis players, staff and officials for the Australian Open. Under biosecurity guidelines, players are allowed to train at dedicated venues for a few hours each day. But several recent arrivals have tested positive to the virus, forcing dozens of players to be confined to their hotel rooms for two weeks.
Australia created a so-called travel bubble with neighboring New Zealand late last year, but it only operates one-way with inbound flights to Australia.
The border closures have hit the tourism industry hard. In 2019, more than 9 million overseas tourists visited Australia. The education sector, once popular with Chinese and Indian students, has also been badly damaged by Australia’s travel ban on most foreign nationals.
Australians wanting to travel overseas must have government permission.