SYDNEY - The first planeload of international students to return to Australia since COVID-19 border closures is due to touch down in Canberra next month.
The planned return of about 350 foreign students would be the first major reopening of Australia's tightly sealed international borders.
Since March, only citizens and permanent residents have been allowed to return. They must go into mandatory quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. Foreign nationals have been banned under COVID-19 restrictions.
Under a plan approved by the Australian Capital Territory, the regional authority that governs Canberra and the surrounding area, a chartered flight would bring the students from a major travel hub in Asia, possibly Singapore. They, too, would be sent into isolation for 14 days, and would be tested for the new coronavirus at the beginning and end of their stay before being allowed to resume their studies.
Paddy Nixon, vice chancellor and president of the University of Canberra, said strict health protocols would be followed.
“We have had to engage not just with the medical officers here in the ACT [Australian Capital Territory], but also with the federal government to ensure that we comply with all their expectations, regulations and protocols, and to ensure both the safety of the students, but also of our community at large.”
Education is one of Australia’s most lucrative enterprises, generating billions of dollars each year. However, COVID-19 restrictions, which have helped Australia mostly contain the disease, have damaged the sector.
It’s hoped the pilot program will lay the groundwork for large-scale arrivals of students in the months ahead.
Chinese students make up about a third of all international enrollments at Australian universities. Earlier this month, they were warned by China's Education Ministry that Australia was no longer a safe place to study because of racism spurred by the pandemic, which first emerged in Wuhan. The government in Canberra said such discrimination was perpetrated by a “tiny minority of cowardly idiots.”
Australia’s international borders are expected to stay closed to tourists for the rest of the year.
Just over 7,400 confirmed coronavirus cases have been recorded in Australia. The vast majority of patients have recovered, but 102 people have died.