by Andrew BEATTY
SYDNEY, Australia (AFP) — Sydney will scrap all quarantine requirements for travellers from next month, officials said Friday, an abrupt step toward reopening Australia’s long-shuttered borders.
In a surprise announcement, Premier Dominic Perrottet of New South Wales said that from November 1 vaccinated travellers would be allowed to enter the state without quarantine of any kind.
“For double vaccinated people around the world, Sydney, New South Wales, is open for business,” Perrottet said.
“Hotel quarantine will be a thing of the past. This is a significant day for our state.”
The decision was a head-snapping turnaround for a country that slammed shut its borders 19 months ago and introduced some of the world’s toughest Covid-19 restrictions.
But Perrottet’s suggestion that tourists and students could be weeks away from returning to Australia was promptly slapped down by the country’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison — whose government controls borders, while quarantine rules are a state issue.
“All we are talking about now is Australian citizens, residents and their immediate families,” Morrison said, insisting he would not open the borders to visitors just yet.
Since March 2020, travel to and from Australia has been virtually banned and anyone who gains permission to enter must fork out many thousands of dollars and agree to be locked in a hotel room for 14 days.
The rules meant tens of thousands of Australians were stuck overseas and tourism ground to a halt. Critics dubbed the country a “hermit state”.
Perrottet — recently appointed as premier of Australia’s most populous state when his predecessor resigned in a corruption scandal — has been quick to put his stamp on the Covid response.
Regardless of mixed messages from state and national governments, airlines and the travel industry welcomed the news as a major step toward normalisation.
– ‘Fantastic news for travellers’ –
Flag carrier airline Qantas said it was bringing forward the resumption of international flights, putting on five flights a week from Sydney to London and four from Sydney to Los Angeles.
A spokesperson for Virgin Australia said it was “fantastic news for travellers, the aviation industry, and the thousands of businesses and communities in the state who rely on open borders and the economic injection that tourism provides”.
The last 19 months have been devastating for Australia’s tourism industry, with visitor numbers down 98 percent from pre-pandemic levels, according to Tourism Australia statistics.
New South Wales’ plan is expected to allow more Australians to return, but is likely to lead to tensions with other states.
Under a national post-pandemic road map, borders were to gradually reopen in November, with only Australians and permanent residents allowed in with mandatory home quarantine.
Friday’s announcement raises the prospect that Sydney residents will be allowed to visit Paris but not Perth, given Western Australia’s borders with the rest of the country remain closed.
Sydney’s 100-plus-day lockdown lifted last week and lingering rules are gradually being phased out as vaccination levels for adults approach 80 percent.
Medical experts have predicted a spike in cases once restrictions are lifted, and have urged policymakers to move slowly.
© Agence France-Presse