Step out of the COVID bunker: Long border closure is questioned by experts

Australians should embrace a different approach to risk from the coronavirus as millions of people sign up for vaccines, leading scientists said in the wake of a contentious budget assumption that could keep international borders closed until the middle of next year.

The warning will fuel a political debate over the vaccine rollout and border controls as Prime Minister Scott Morrison defends the big-spending federal budget against Labor accusations that he is not doing enough to speed up vaccinations and expand the capacity of the quarantine regime.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during question time on Wednesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

While the budget did not include new spending on quarantine facilities, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg signalled on Wednesday the government was open to a proposal from Victoria, and potentially other state governments, to build more facilities like the Howard Springs quarantine centre near Darwin.

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet challenged the federal timeframe on borders by calling for a clear roadmap to opening Australia to the world, as business leaders also warned about the damage from turning away travellers and banning citizens from leaving the country.

“We definitely need a clear path forward, we need a roadmap to open Australia back to the world,” Mr Perrottet told Sky News.

“We had an assumption last year with the federal government that we would have international borders open in the December quarter, and the budget papers yesterday indicated that would be back towards the end of June next year.

“But there’s still no clear roadmap or strategy to get there and I think that needs to be communicated more clearly.”

Mr Perrottet said NSW could take its own approach to quarantine, including allowing home quarantine, because it could help economic growth.

One day after Mr Frydenberg unveiled spending measures and tax breaks worth $74.6 billion over five years, Labor used Question Time to question the budget assumptions of a “population-wide” vaccine rollout by the end of this year and an opening of international borders from the middle of next year.

University of NSW professor Greg Dore, an infectious diseases expert at the Kirby Institute, called for a new approach to risk in the light of the vaccine rollout.

“The continued rise in COVID-19 cases, most marked and confronting in India, and low global vaccine protection – only 4 per cent fully covered – suggests major disease burden will continue for two or three years,” Professor Dore said.

“It’s not feasible for Australia to remain in an elimination bunker to ride out the COVID-19 storm.”

Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, he said there was an alternative strategy involving accelerated vaccine uptake to build up “disease immunity” across the community.

Australian National University professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician, said the vaccine rollout meant the community was better protected against the global risks.

“We need a different attitude to risk and vaccines are a good example of this because I think there’s an expectation in the community to have 100 per cent efficacy and zero risk,” he said.

“It’s the same with quarantine hotels. I think the quarantine system has been quite successful by international standards, and it’s decreased the risks one hundred-fold, but it hasn’t made it zero risk.”



On the international border, Professor Collignon said Australians would not know until this time next year whether the borders could open because this would depend on how other countries fare during the northern winter.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese challenged the government over its assumptions by seizing on different messages from cabinet ministers about whether it expected people to have one or two doses of the vaccines by the end of the year.

Mr Morrison said the budget papers did not specify the number of doses by year-end and Health Minister Greg Hunt called the Labor attacks a “micro-game” over the budget, sparking Labor complaints that the vaccination target was central to the economic recovery.

The government insisted it had not made policy decisions to set hard dates on the vaccination rollout or border openings, but Tourism and Transport Forum chief Margy Osmond said employers were exposed to the damage from closed borders.

“We are at risk of becoming one of the only major countries in the world without a comprehensive and well-understood timeframe and clear targets for re-opening,” Ms Osmond said.

Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott also called for a clearer roadmap towards opening the borders and the economy, while NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian questioned the federal assumption about the opening from the middle of next year.

“I’m always very ambitious. I’m probably more ambitious than what was there,” Ms Berejiklian said of the budget.

“I would like to see us really work as fast as we can to get our population vaccinated.”

But Mr Frydenberg warned of the danger of moving too quickly to open the border.

“We have to be very careful and cautious, when it comes to opening up our country,” he said. “We cannot avoid the dangers that may pose right now, and what we must seek to do is protect Australians.”

The budget did not include new funding for quarantine facilities, with the government arguing it had already spent $500 million on Howard Springs, but Mr Frydenberg said he and Mr Morrison were open to a proposal from Victoria to help fund a cabin-style facility in Melbourne’s north.

Mr Frydenberg said quarantine responsibilities rested “primarily” with the states under national cabinet decisions early in the pandemic.

“With respect to new federal investments, in quarantine and the states, the first proposal that we’re looking through is the one from Victoria and we will respond to that in due course,” he said.

Asked if he was open to similar proposals from other states, he said: “Whatever proposals
come from states, we would consider them again in due course through the proper processes.”

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