Australia’s zero-tolerance covid-19 strategy must end for travel to return, experts say

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Australia has taken a hard-line approach to travel restrictions in its effort to contain covid-19. Effectively closing its borders, the nation banned nonessential entry and mandated strict quarantines and testing for anyone allowed to enter — requiring even returning Australian nationals to pay for two-week stays in quarantine hotels monitored by police.

But now that coronavirus vaccinations are underway worldwide, some health experts are signaling that a zero-tolerance approach will probably need to change if the country wants to restart travel.

Two public health experts from Australia’s University of Melbourne penned an op-ed this week suggesting that the country’s coronavirus strategy, which has focused on zero transmission, will need to shift to a “harm minimization approach” if the country wants to reopen its borders any time soon.

“If zero Covid-19 is this endgame, then international travel is years away,” epidemiologists Nathan Grills and Tony Blakely wrote in the Australian Financial Review. “The vaccine could help achieve eradication, but zero Covid-19 remains a pipe dream in the medium term. It’s dependent on numerous external variables, mostly outside our control, including viral mutation and co-operation between 195 countries.”

Australia, which typically saw upward of 9 million international visitors a year, has sacrificed tourism for its largely covid-free status. The country experienced a 99 percent drop in foreign visitors since last year’s border closure, according to Australia’s tourism board.

The strategy has been credited with keeping domestic life largely covid-free: Australia’s population of 25 million has seen a total of 28,930 confirmed coronavirus cases since last March, according to the World Health Organization, and a total of 909 confirmed deaths from covid-19.

Grills and Blakely argue that the return of “tourism, education, and trade” will depend on the “level of residual risk we accept from the virus” that will come with reopening borders. They say health experts, including themselves, are working to model how much widespread vaccination the country would need to achieve to responsibly open its borders. Initial findings, they say, suggest that vaccinating 70 percent of adults could be the threshold for containing sporadic outbreaks.

The country’s vaccine rollout began this week in New South Wales, and health authorities say inoculations are expected to continue until the end of October, according to Reuters.

“We need to balance use of the most effective vaccines with ‘getting on with it,’” Grills and Blakely wrote. The experts say public officials will also need to take into consideration vaccine efficacy and behavioral factors like public confidence in getting the vaccine widely administered and reopening borders.

Despite their warning that borders could stay shuttered for years if the national strategy does not change, the authors also expressed some confidence that a vaccine threshold for reopening could be reached this year.

“We remain confident vaccination programs will allow us to safely open up to the world,” they wrote. “Exactly when is still unclear, but don’t cancel all your 2021 international plans just yet.”

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