Australian borders likely to open in second half of 2021

Gradual opening of Australian borders

Department of Health Secretary Dr. Brendan Murphy states that Australia’s borders might be closed to most international destinations for most of 2021, depending on the status of Australia’s nationwide vaccination program. Dr. Murphy told ABC, “I think that we’ll go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions… Even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated, we don’t know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus.”

Australia may not fully open its borders to international travellers until the vaccine has been widely rolled out. Health Minister Greg Hunt says the goal is to have community vaccination in Australia by October 2021, and the first rounds of vaccinations have already been underway. You can check if you are eligible for the vaccine on the Department of Health website. Quarantines may still be a mandatory prevention measure throughout the year.

Qantas has recently announced that it is set to recommence international flights on 31 October 2021. Qantas plans to relaunch most of its long-haul international flight by using 11 of its 787-9 aircrafts as well as their A330s. This change has been brought about due to the government’s roll out of the COVID-19 vaccinations. However, this is still subject to change.

This news would be welcome by many as it will allow temporary and permanent migrants to return to Australia. However, some incoming travellers may still be required to undergo two-week mandatory quarantine.

Since the implementation of international travel bans in March 2020, all arrivals on visitor and temporary migration visas have been prevented (exemptions apply). The ban also prevented Australian citizens and permanent residents from departing Australia (exemptions apply).

Based on the announced policy the current plan (Between July to December 2020), is to lift the travel ban for Australian citizens, permanent residents, New Zealanders and some international students. However, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg cautioned that the policy is subject to change due to the evolving situation of coronavirus.

“The assumptions are that it very gradually starts to come back, that quarantine is applied, that you start potentially bringing in international students,”

“Of course the environment with respect to the coronavirus is very fluid.”

“Decisions haven’t been taken about the start date for that.”

Travel Bubbles

The trans-Tasman travel bubble opened on 19 April 2021. This means travellers from Australia and New Zealand can travel between the two countries without needing to quarantine. For more information on the trans-Tasman travel bubble, see here: Australia and New Zealand Travel Bubble.

On 15 March 2021, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said that Australia and Singapore could form a travel bubble as soon as July 2021. Australians would be able to enter Singapore without having to quarantine and vice versa, so long as all travellers participating in the travel bubble have been vaccinated.

Late 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Australia could also be willing to open its borders to low-risk countries in Asia and the South Pacific. These could include counties like Fiji, China, Vanuatu, Japan, and South Korea. The United States and Europe are not likely to be part of a travel bubble until their case numbers drop substantially. However, forming these bubbles requires both destinations to be open to one another.

Who else can travel?

The Commissioner of the Australian Border Force and decision makers may grant you an individual exemption if you are:

  • a foreign national travelling at the invitation of the Australian Government or a state or territory government authority for the purpose of assisting in the COVID-19 response
  • a foreign national whose entry into Australia would be in the national interest, supported by the Australian Government or a state or territory government authority
  • providing critical or specialist medical services, including air ambulance, medical evacuations and delivering critical medical supplies
  • a foreign national with critical skills or working in a critical sector in Australia
  • a foreign national sponsored by your employer to work in Australia in an occupation on the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL)
  • military personnel, including those who form part of the Status of Forces Agreement, Commonwealth Armed Forces, Asia Pacific Forces and Status of Armed Forces Agreement
  • a person who resides on a vessel that seeks safe port at the closest appointed port for reprovisioning or safety reasons for a limited duration, supported by the relevant State or Territory government where safe haven is sought
  • a student completing year 11 and 12, with endorsement from the federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) and; support from the relevant Australian State or Territory government health authority and education department. Further information regarding this process can be found at the Department of Education, Skills and Employment website.
  • a student in your final two years of study of a medical, dental, nursing or allied health profession university degree, where you have evidence of a confirmed placement in an Australian hospital or medical practice which begins within the next two months.
  • travelling for compassionate and compelling reasons.

Pre-pandemic level travel

A new report by Deloitte has suggested international travel- both inbound and outbound will be weak in 2022, and it may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

ANZ Research forecast international borders would start opening from mid-2021, triggering a gradual pick up in arrivals of international tourists, students and migrants. But arrivals were not expected to fully return to pre-pandemic levels within the forecast horizon ending December 2022.

However, the vaccine rollout in Australia and overseas appears to be slower than expected and questions remain about whether quarantine-free travel will be possible – even for those who have been vaccinated.

“It is important to recognise that, in and of itself, closing the borders would be a large drag on the Australian economy in the long run.”

Australian Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy has warned “substantial border restrictions” will remain in place for at least the next year. This suggests the risks are leaning towards borders not reopening until late in the fourth quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2022.

When can international students come back to Australia?

The Australian Government supports the return of international students to Australia. The return of international students is being led by state and territory governments in consultation with the Australian Government and education institutions in their jurisdictions. To support the scaling up of student arrivals in a COVID-safe way, the Government has developed the Protocols and Preconditions for International Student Arrivals.

There’s no date for when international students will be allowed to enter Australia after the Australian government lowered the number of international arrivals, prioritising returning Australian residents over other visitors.

Various plans for a pilot scheme to bring students in on charter flights and house them in quarantine have been drafted but only one small scheme has managed to get off the ground.

The key reason for this plan is to bring back international students who are stranded overseas. Continuous delay in bringing in students would affect universities drastically (even with the recent changes to support international students). The international education industry is the fourth-largest industry in Australia. Students bring approximately $39 billion into the Australian economy.

The budget forecast also predicted that the net overseas migration will fall to 31,000 in 2020-21. Net overseas migration is affected by international travel restrictions and constraints on the ability of applicants to meet visa application requirements, and is assumed to fall from 232,000 in 2018-19 to be 154,000 in 2019-20 and 31,000 in 2020-21.

NSW plan to bring back international students

The NSW government is planning alternative quarantine accommodation for international students in the hope it can persuade its federal counterpart to approve their return from the second half of the year. Read the full report here.

VIC plan to bring back international students

In December 2020 the Victorian government was considering a plan to fly in up to 23,000 international students early in 2021, who would serve out their quarantine in student accommodation. By January the state government was upbeat saying it was “working closely” with the federal government to finalise the plan.

SA plan to bring back international students

First approved pilot in August 2020 aimed to bring hundreds of Asian students to South Australia. South Australia’s pilot scheme that would see up to 300 international students brought to three state-owned South Australian universities — University of Adelaide, Flinders University and University of South Australia — could happen early this year.

NT plan to bring back international students

The Northern Territory became the first jurisdiction to welcome back a small number of international students on Nov. 30, 2020 under a pilot scheme. Charles Darwin University (CDU) welcomed 63 international students — the first successful attempt after months of discussions and planning. The scheme was approved by the Australian and Northern Territory government.

Tasmania plan to bring back international students

Tasmania has not publicaly announced any plans to bring back international students. University of Tasmania deputy vice-chancellor (international) Rob Wilson said UTAS continued to support its international student cohort to study remotely. “International students are still applying to study with us at similar levels to previous years,” , “While travel restrictions remain, we look forward to supporting these new students to study online.”

QLD plan to bring back international students

Queensland is planning for the return of overseas students but there is no publicaly available information on the details of the plan apart from a proposal for a quarantine hub west of Brisbane.

WA plan to bring back international students

Western Australia has not publicaly announced any plans to bring back international students.

ACT plan to bring back international students

Last year the ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr put forward a plan to alternate planes of Australian residents and international students. He argued this was important for the territory’s wider economy.

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