Australia Pushes Forward With Plan to End Covid-Zero Isolation
(Bloomberg) -- Australia’s transformation from Covid-Zero isolation to opening back up to the wider world seems to be happening sooner than many expected.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that bans on international travel will be lifted in November, a month ahead of schedule. And in a move set to pave the way for overseas travelers and fee-paying foreign students who have received those vaccinations to enter Australia, authorities recognized China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. Covid-19 shot and India-made AstraZeneca Plc jabs.
“Australia will be ready for takeoff very soon,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Friday. “It’s time to give Australians their lives back. We’ve saved lives, we’ve saved livelihoods, but we must work together to ensure that Australians can reclaim the lives that they once had.”
It’s a far cry from mid-June, when Australia was instead still basking in its Covid-Zero status that kept comunity infections to a minimum through strict border controls. Then an outbreak of the delta variant flipped the script, forcing Sydney went into a lockdown in mid-June that it has yet to exit.
Lulled by being Covid free, only about 14% of the population was fully inoculated in mid-June. Now it’s reached 55%, about the same level as the U.S., as Morrison has sought to ramp up the rollout and Australians have embraced the jab as a way to exit the lockdowns that have crippled Sydney and Melbourne.
The rapid increase means Morrison can now eye next month as the time international borders can be reopened when national jab rates reach his target of 80% full inoculation.
The national carrier Qantas Airways Ltd. responded to Morrison’s announcement Friday by bringing forward the restart of international flights out of Sydney to destinations including London and Los Angeles to Nov. 14. Its shares rose 0.7% in response, while Flight Centre Travel Group Ltd. climbed 1.8%.
“This faster restart is fantastic news,” Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said in statement. “The early reopening of Australia’s international borders will mean so much to so many people and it’s made possible by the amazing ramp up of the vaccine rollout.”
Still, with daily delta-variant cases in the southeast of the nation near record highs, Australia still faces nervous times ahead. The outbreak means Morrison’s plans for all states and territories to remove domestic borders by Christmas looks highly unlikely.
In fact, one state, Western Australia, is signaling it wants to remain Covid-Zero well into 2022, as its government says it won’t welcome visitors from the pandemic-hit states until two months after getting its own vaccination rate beyond 90%. This raises the bizarre prospect of Sydneysiders being able to fly and from the U.K. and U.S. before they can enter Perth.
That won’t stop Morrison from trying to pressure all state leaders to commit to his “national plan” of removing lockdowns when 70% full vaccination thresholds are reached, and removing all borders -- domestic and international -- at 80%.
He’s looking to reclaim political capital lost amid criticism of his conservative government’s initially tardy vaccine rollout. His window to do that is closing, with his conservatives trailing the progressive Labor opposition ahead of elections that must be held by mid-May.
Morrison’s task won’t be easy in the cut and thrust world of Australian politics, as highlighted by two other announcements made on a hectic day Down Under on Friday. The prime minister was forced to reshuffle his Cabinet after his industry minister quit in the wake of disclosing the acceptance of an anonymous donation to help cover legal fees in a defamation case.
Friday’s other announcement came as a real shock. Gladys Berejiklian, the high-profile premier of New South Wales state, told reporters in a hastily arranged press conference from her Sydney base that she was stepping down after an anti-corruption body launched a probe into her historical conduct with a former lawmaker.
Just six months ago, Berejiklian was lauded by the Australian Financial Review as “the woman who saved Australia” for her ability to keep the economy of the nation’s most-populous state open despite the pandemic. Now, with Sydney in the grip of its delta outbreak but looking to remove lockdown restrictions this month, she won’t be able to guide the city through the reopening.
Denying any wrongdoing, Berejiklian said “my only regret, will be not to be able to finish the job to ensure the people of New South Wales transition to living freely with Covid.”
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