The defence minister, Peter Dutton, has called for hotel quarantine-free international travel for fully vaccinated Australians “sooner rather than later” but Labor and several states have warned that shouldn’t be considered before the entire population is protected.
Dutton supported on Friday a proposal by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, who has asked health authorities to plan for allowing Australians who have had both vaccine doses to travel overseas and return without having to go into hotel quarantine for two weeks.
Morrison’s suggestion comes after he convened twice-weekly national cabinet meetings to prepare for mass vaccinations by mid-year. That’s prompted an angry reaction from states which said they would need more information about vaccine supply first.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Tuesday that “vaccination alone is no guarantee you can open up” – prompting concern from the more than 40,000 Australians stranded overseas.
Asked about Hunt’s comments on Thursday, Morrison told Perth radio the government’s goal was to first vaccinate vulnerable populations.
“But from there, what I’d like to see happen next, and this is what I’ve tasked the medical experts with, is ensuring that we can know when an Australian is vaccinated here with their two doses, is able to travel overseas and return without having to go through hotel quarantine,” he said.
“We’re still some time away from that. The states, at this stage, I’m sure wouldn’t be agreeing to relaxing those hotel quarantine arrangements for those circumstances at this point in time. But what we need to know from the health advisers is what does make that safe and what does make that possible.”
Morrison said if Australia was to open the international border then Covid cases would “increase and Australians would have to become used to dealing with 1,000 cases a week or more” – compared with zero cases of community transmission at present.
Morrison warned that Australians would not welcome subsequent “restrictions, closures and border shutting”.
Dutton told the Nine Network the government should aim for hotel quarantine-free travel “as quickly as we can” and instead allow home quarantine for vaccinated Australians.
The defence minister said this would allow Australians in the UK or US “to come back home and see family or see their grandparents, bring their newborn grandchild back home”.
“If we are having a situation where people are coming back and bringing the virus back with them, then we will see community transmission … it is trying to get that balance right.”
Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, said Australia would have to “get the population vaccinated” first.
The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, was also much more cautious, warning that reopening travel would depend on medical studies under way investigating whether vaccines reduce transmission.
“That will determine the rate at which we can reopen different parts of society including the international border,” he told Sky News.
The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said hotel quarantine-free travel was “a great suggestion but it does rely on us having vaccinated the population”.
Berejiklian said it could only be considered “once we know that the majority of our population has the vaccine”.
“Once you have the vaccine, it vastly reduces your chance of getting the disease, vastly reduces your chance of spreading it and even if you do get it, it doesn’t mean you will have it severely,” she told Nine. “So the earlier we get our population vaccinated in a safe way, the better we have those opportunities for travel and everything else.”
A Victorian government spokesperson told Hlcarpenter.com Australia the proposal was premature. “Our focus should be on getting more Australians vaccinated before we even consider a proposal like this,” he said.
“The federal government is responsible for international borders and the rollout of the vaccines, and they need to manage the risks associated with it.”
Federal, state and territory leaders will meet on Monday to overhaul the vaccination program, which must now skew limited supplies of Pfizer vaccine to frontline workers younger than 50, after an advisory was slapped on the AstraZeneca vaccine, warning that in people younger than 50 it may cause extremely rare but potentially deadly blood clots.
The death of a 48-year-old diabetic woman who developed blood clots after receiving a coronavirus vaccine is still under investigation. Health authorities have previously concluded two cases of blood clots are related to the AstraZeneca jab.
The federal government has ordered 20m extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with an estimated 70% of Australia’s total 40m doses scheduled to arrive between October and December.
Queensland’s deputy premier, Steven Miles, told reporters in Brisbane the vaccine rollout was “incredibly important to return to post-pandemic normal”.
“For a long time I’d been telling people we’d be back to relative normal by the end of this year,” he said. “With the vaccination program no longer working to that target, those timeframes are now at risk.”
Miles welcomed the decision to convene twice-weekly national cabinet meetings, suggesting this indicated “the prime minister needs the help and support of state territory leaders and our health systems to get this right”.