National Cabinet strengthens Australia’s border controls

Matt Woodley

8/01/2021 6:04:20 PM

UPDATED: It also labelled Brisbane a COVID ‘hotspot’, with every state and territory instituting strict quarantine rules.

Woman sanitising her hands at an airport.
All airline travellers are now required to wear masks at airports and for the duration of the trip.

The new highly infectious coronavirus variant that has emerged in the UK has seen all states and territories agree to pre-flight testing for international returning travellers.
Following Friday’s National Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 80% of Australians registered to come home from overseas are in countries where the UK variant has been found, and that everyone wanting to enter the country will need to return a negative COVID-19 test result prior to departure.
Only some exceptions will be made for travellers returning from countries where testing is difficult, and passengers and flight crew will also be required to wear masks while in international airports and for the duration of the journey.
All international flight crew will now quarantine in dedicated facilities between flights (or for 14 days) and also get tested every seven days or upon arrival – requirements that previously only existed in some states.
While testing does not absolutely rule out potential coronavirus carriers returning from overseas, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said it will still pick up cases.
‘Yes, if it’s positive, we know it’s positive. [But] if it’s negative, that does not prove the next day, or even on the plane [that they are COVID-free] – they might become infectious,’ he said.
‘We’ve been doing this all along with our [Government chartered] flights into Howard Springs.
‘So I think the last flight that came, there were 15 people that were denied uplift onto that flight because either they or their household contacts [tested positive].
‘This is the new rule now for everyone coming … if you’re positive, you and your household contacts will be denied uplift.
‘A negative test … is not foolproof. But a positive test – they’re not coming.’
Aside from more infection control safeguards on flights, the caps on international arrivals are going to be halved in NSW, WA and Queensland until 15 February. Quarantine workers – as defined by individual state and territories – will also be subject to daily testing, whereas the national standard had previously been every seven days.
‘This is absolutely consistent with the medical advice that has been provided,’ Prime Minister Morrison said.
‘The suggestion that Australia might be able to close off every single flight that comes to Australia was considered ... and was not recommended to the National Cabinet.’
In terms of domestic airline travel, mask wearing will be mandatory for all people in Australia while in airports and on flights, with the exception of those under 12 or carrying a medical exemption.
The National Cabinet meeting also addressed the potential outbreak of the UK variant in Queensland, after an inner-city hotel quarantine worker tested positive on Wednesday, prompting a three-day hard lockdown of Brisbane.
While the woman – who is in her 20s and lives in Brisbane’s south – only developed symptoms on the day she was tested, health authorities believe she has been infectious since 2 January. As a result, all residents living in the greater Brisbane area were required to stay home from 6pm Friday 8 January to 6pm Monday 11 January.
During this time, cafes, pubs and restaurants were open only for takeaway service, funerals were restricted to 20 guests and weddings restricted to 10 guests.
There was also a limit of two visitors in homes (only if people are offering support) but people were allowed to exercise with one other. Anyone could enter Brisbane during the lockdown period, but they were bound by the same restrictions, including mandatory mask use.
There was no extension to the lockdown after no locally acquired coronavirus cases were recorded in Queensland over the three days, but masks must still be worn indoors at places including shopping centres, supermarkets, retail outlets, hospitals, aged care facilities, places of worship, gyms, public transport and ride-share services until 1am on 22 January.
Following National Cabinet – which will once again return to fortnightly meetings – the majority of state and territory leaders confirmed anyone travelling from Brisbane, or who had been there since 2 January, will be forced to self-isolate for 14 days from the time they were last in the area, and in some cases also undergo testing.
West Australian Premier Mark McGowan went one step further and instituted a hard border with the entire state, meaning from midnight on 9 January anyone from Queensland – including WA residents returning home – will need to meet a ‘strict exemption category’ to be allowed entry.

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly spoke to reports after the National Cabinet meeting.
WA has had its own scare with the new UK variant, after three people failed to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) when transferring an 86-year-old woman from hotel quarantine to Royal Perth Hospital. Two of the people have returned a negative test, while a nurse who treated the woman was still awaiting her results at the time of publication.
Elsewhere, South Australia has reported three new cases – all in hotel quarantine – including two who have tested positive to the UK variant.
Meanwhile, NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant confirmed four travellers returning home from South Africa had recently tested positive for the mutated 501.V2 variant and been moved to more secure quarantine accommodation.
Much like the UK variant, 501.V2 is 50–70% more infectious than previous versions, but scientists have said it also has the potential to impact vaccine efficacy in some cases.
Dr Chant said the 16 other passengers who were on the flight have also been moved to the specialist health accommodation (SHA) ‘as a precaution’.
Vaccine update
Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) boss Professor John Skerritt has confirmed it is ‘highly likely’ the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine candidate will receive approval in the next few weeks.
Dr Skerritt said the extra time being taken to approve the candidate will allow the TGA to have a better understanding of adverse reactions than countries like the US and UK, which have pushed ahead with emergency approvals and begun their vaccination programs.
Australia is expected to have an expert panel consider the mRNA vaccine candidate next week, which will assess the TGA’s report and provide advice on ‘any gaps’.
‘The most critical thing is people have confidence this vaccine has been looked at with the scrutiny we would give to any other vaccine,’ Professor Skerritt told the ABC.
He also said it is ‘remarkable’ that Australia will get a vaccine that has already been injected into several million people worldwide, with some involved in clinical trials receiving the vaccine as early as the second quarter of 2020.
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