When to open: the Australian border debate

by | Coronavirus - COVID-19, Coronavirus - Vaccinations, Immunity

Now that Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program is underway, people are asking, “when will the international borders reopen?” and “when will I get to see my loved ones in person again?”

According to Burnet Institute Director and CEO Professor Brendan Crabb AC, and Medical Epidemiologist Professor Mike Toole AM, also from the Burnet Institute, we must use caution to break out of ‘Fortress Australia’.

We are now experiencing a quality of life that is largely similar to the pre-pandemic days, and most Australians want to keep it that way. However, while the objective of zero COVID-19 community transmission will be with us for some time, it should not mean ‘Fortress Australia’, said the professors in a recent article.

“Reopening our international borders will have enormous benefits. Not only will Australians be able to reunite with overseas family and friends, but we will again welcome skilled migrants, international students and tourists – all essential for full economic recovery.”

Professor Brendan Crabb AC, and Medical Epidemiologist Professor Mike Toole AM, say that while we need to be ambitious about opening a pathway that lets people move freely into and out of Australia, being careful and putting the right policies in place are critical.

“For the foreseeable future – most likely years – we can’t think of our borders as steel doors that are either shut or open. A reopening of the border should be cautious and based on evolving circumstances, evidence and an agreed public health strategy,” the Professors said.

According to Professors Crabb and Toole, Australia faces three substantial uncertainties when it comes to opening up: how much of our population has to be vaccinated to protect against severe disease and widespread circulation of the virus; how effective vaccines will be against emerging variants; how long vaccine protection lasts; and how well our borders are protected through incoming quarantine.

“The evidence shows countries that pursued elimination of COVID-19 have achieved vastly better health and economic outcomes than those that allowed community transmission. This means for some time we will need to maintain Zero COVID through quarantine that we can trust.”

“In the immediate future our priorities must be an accelerated vaccination program and an improved, higher-capacity, airborne-ready quarantine system. Once highly vaccinated, we will have learned more about the risks associated with variants and what the best options are.”

They believe that it’s unlikely that the gates will be flung open at this stage. Still, more nuanced and relaxed approaches to minimising virus entry could be trialled and adopted such as, “A traffic light system assessing risk, home-quarantine, and home-based testing are all possibilities,” the Professors added.

To read the full commentary click here

The Burnet Institute is an independent not-for-profit organisation that links medical research with practical action.