The federal government just made it even harder for Australians overseas to come home. Is this legal? Or reasonable?


Mick Tsikas/AAP

Liz Hicks, The University of Melbourne; Jane McAdam AO, UNSW, and Regina Jefferies, UNSWThe COVID-19 pandemic has meant huge restrictions on Australians’ ability to travel both within Australia and overseas. But until now, Australian citizens ordinarily resident in other countries have been able to return to Australia and then leave without requiring additional permission.

However, last week, the federal government quietly removed that exemption. This is designed to deter Australians from coming home in the first place, thereby reducing demand on quarantine places. It will come into effect on Wednesday August 11.




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It follows lobbying from state premiers (who have to quarantine people) to limit the movement of fly-in fly-out workers.

This means Australians who live abroad and return to Australia (even if it is to see family) will not automatically be able to leave again unless they meet narrow grounds for an exemption. They will need to prove they have an “established and settled” home overseas, via documents like a residency permit, tenancy agreement, letter from an employer or utility bills. This is not necessarily straightforward, particularly as lives, jobs and visas continued to be disrupted by the pandemic.

Is this latest move legal? Are there any grounds to challenge this?

The Biosecurity Act

The government’s power to ban people from leaving Australia comes from the Biosecurity Act. In an emergency, section 477(1) gives the health minister sweeping powers to prevent and control the entry of diseases into Australia.

Since COVID began, Health Minister Greg Hunt has issued determinations to stop Australian citizens and residents from leaving without permission, to ban them from travelling on from the New Zealand “travel bubble” to another country, and to ban people from returning to Australia from India during the second wave. If people breach these rules, they can be subject to penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to $66,000, or both.

Health minister Greg Hunt.
As health minister, Greg Hunt has sweeping powers under the Biosecurity Act.
Lukas Coch/AAP

By contrast to other legislative instruments, these determinations by the health minister cannot be “disallowed” (or overturned) by federal parliament.

This means parliament can’t block the health minister’s decision to stop Australians who live abroad from leaving without permission.

What about constitutional rights?

Australia is one of the only liberal democracies in the world without a bill of rights.

In countries such as Germany, Slovenia, and Spain, citizens and residents have been able to challenge COVID restrictions in courts by arguing they breach their constitutional rights. Courts then consider whether a restriction is a proportionate way of controlling the virus.




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There is a strong argument the new restriction for Australians is disproportionate. This is because its objective — managing the entry of COVID by deterring demand for quarantine places — is already achieved via caps on the number of people who can enter Australia. There are also other means of managing risk that would place a lesser burden on rights to leave and return to Australia, such as tailoring restrictions to vaccination status.

Reducing demand for already regulated spaces, as the new restriction does, is really about reducing political pressure on government to expand quarantine systems.

What does the India experience tell us?

Because Australia doesn’t have a bill of rights, citizens can’t challenge the proportionality of Hunt’s determinations.

This was clear in the challenge to the ban on citizens returning from India, where the Biosecurity Act was described by counsel for the Commonwealth as a “legislative bulldozer” — knocking over any other statutory protections or common law rights that people might have. The ban was found to be legal.




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The minister does need to consider whether there are less intrusive ways of controlling the entry of COVID when making a determination. But the challenge to the India ban shows courts will allow a great deal of discretion to the health minister in making that call. As long as there is a basis for the minister to make that call — such as health advice — courts will not look too deeply into the premises underlying that advice or its proportionality.

Commonwealth power

One argument against stopping Australians who ordinarily live abroad from leaving is the Commonwealth must have a power explicitly listed in the Constitution to make a law about this.

The federal government is likely relying on the Constitution’s quarantine power to stop Australians from leaving. The explanatory statement tabled in parliament last Thursday makes clear the Commonwealth is removing the exemption on people who ordinarily live abroad to reduce demand on quarantine places.

Passengers at Sydney airport line up to check package.
Australians will find it even harder to travel overseas from August 11.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

There is an argument stopping people from leaving doesn’t have enough of a connection to the Commonwealth’s power over quarantine. Given the broad approach courts have taken to emergency powers during the pandemic, a court may nonetheless find restrictions on people leaving is incidental to managing quarantine.

International human rights law

What about Australian citizens’ rights under international law?

Under international law, everyone must be free to leave any country, including their own. In exceptional and very limited circumstances, this right may be restricted – for instance, if it is necessary to protect public health. However, the restrictions must be clearly set out in domestic law, consistent with other human rights (including the right to family life), and “the least intrusive” way of achieving the desired aim.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has been very plain.

The application of restrictions in any individual case must be based on clear legal grounds and meet the test of necessity and the requirements of proportionality.

In other words, a “one size fits all approach” will not cut it.

The current restrictions do not take into consideration vaccination status, nor the fact a cohort of Australian citizens have their permanent home abroad.

Particularly when considered in conjunction with the barriers the government has already put in place that limit these Australians’ right to return home, this additional exit requirement truly seems like overreach.The Conversation

Liz Hicks, PhD / Dr. iur. candidate, The University of Melbourne; Jane McAdam AO, Scientia Professor and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW, and Regina Jefferies, Affiliate, Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: COVID transition plan has bad news for returning travellers


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraThe plan to transition Australia from COVID-as-crisis to COVID-like-flu that Scott Morrison has announced is designed to send a positive message – and an exhortation – to a community jaded by lockdowns, aborted holidays and closed borders.

But its most immediate and concrete measure is a negative.

The caps on returning travellers coming on commercial flights will be halved, as the country deals with the highly infectious Delta strain. The reduced caps, which several states pressed for, are set to last into next year.

Weekly arrivals will be cut to 3,035.

The federal government will increase the number on its sponsored flights bringing people to the Howard Springs quarantine centre. But that won’t compensate for the slashed cap, in what will be a blow to many people already finding it hard to return home.

On the more positive side, alternative quarantine options will be trialled, including home quarantine for returning vaccinated travellers, and there will be expanded commercial trials for limited entry of student and economic visas holders.

Under huge political pressure over the slow vaccine rollout – jabs are currently around eight million – a major aim of Morrison’s four stage plan is to incentivise people to get vaccinated.

At present the rollout is being held back not just by vaccine shortages and other problems but also by hesitancy – and in some cases complacency. The bad publicity around AstraZeneca has contributed to hesitancy.

Under the plan, yet-to-be specified vaccination coverage will be the key to eventually managing COVID like other infectious diseases, notably the flu.

But the “post-vaccination” second stage of the plan won’t be reached until next year – and that’s assuming all goes well.

A vaccination threshold for the easing, minimising or eschewing of restrictions, including lockdowns will be set on the basis of medical evidence and scientific modelling currently being done at Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute.

Morrison said of the vaccination threshold: “This will be a scientific number. It won’t be a political number, it won’t be an arbitrary number.” It could include targets for vulnerable populations such as the over-70s.

Experts give a wide range of rates for the appropriate level of vaccination needed for adequate community immunity.

Morrison announced the plan after national cabinet, at the end of a week that has seen brawling over his encouragement for younger people to take AstraZeneca, despite mixed health advice.

He denied his Monday comments had been inconsistent with the official advice.

Under the plan, the country is presently in phase one – dubbed “vaccinate, prepare and pilot” – when the strategy is to “continue to suppress the virus for the purpose of minimising community transmission”.

The plan has been agreed to “in principle” by the states and territories. But given they have the power over lockdowns and other restrictions, they won’t be bound by its specifics. Also the stages contain menus of measures rather than hard-and-fast commitments.

The “post vaccination” second phase would “seek to minimise serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality” from COVID

The Prime Minister said national cabinet had agreed on a “mind-set change”.

“Our mind-set on managing COVID-19 has to change once you move from pre-vaccination to post-vaccination. That’s the deal for Australians,” said Morrison, who is just out of quarantine after his overseas trip.

The plan says measures in the second phase may include easing restrictions on vaccinated residents, such as lockdowns and border controls. There would be lockdowns only in extreme circumstances to prevent escalating hospitalisations and deaths.

In this stage, inbound passenger caps would be restored at previous levels for unvaccinated returning travellers and there would be larger caps for vaccinated returning travellers.

Capped entry of student and economic visa holders would be allowed, subject to quarantine arrangements.

New reduced quarantine arrangements would apply for vaccinated residents.

The third – “consolidation” – phase would see COVID-19 managed like the public health management of other infectious diseases. There would be no lockdowns and restrictions would be lifted for outbound travellers who were vaccinated. Stage four would bring a final loosening.

There are not indicative timetables for the last two phases to start.

The plan is largely a work-in-progress, as is the vexed rollout, but Morrison hopes it will help drive the jabs, and provide him with some political cover.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Who’s being allowed to leave Australia during COVID? FOI data show it is murky and arbitrary


Rick Rycroft/AP

Regina Jefferies, UNSW and Jane McAdam, UNSWWith outbreaks of COVID-19 in most states and territories, and low rates of vaccination, concerns have arisen again about who is being permitted to exit (and re-enter) the country.

Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan, for instance, said there should be stricter measures for people wanting to leave Australia “while there’s a pandemic running wild around the world because inevitably they want to come back”, posing a health risk to the community.

Questions have also been raised about where travellers are being permitted to go, and for what reasons.

Even though we are more than a year into the pandemic, the Commonwealth’s general prohibition on citizens and permanent residents leaving Australia remains in effect. Despite the passage of time and the increasingly widespread availability of vaccines, Australia is among a small number of countries that continues to rely on border restrictions as the primary pandemic response.

What statistics from Home Affairs show

We recently obtained detailed data from the Department of Home Affairs through a Freedom of Information request that answer these questions. The statistics show who has been allowed to leave Australia, which countries they are going to, and why.

The data cover the period from August 1 2020 to April 25 2021, and reveal some concerning trends.

In particular, the figures show that while the top countries of intended destination were India (25,443 requests), followed by China (21,547) and the UK (15,703), approval rates to the UK (68%) were 22 percentage points higher than India (46%), and 11 points higher than China (59%).




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This was at a time when the UK was experiencing a drastic second wave of COVID-19 — but India’s second wave had only just begun.

The figures are reminiscent of approval rates for travel exemptions to enter Australia, which precipitated allegations of racial bias earlier this year. Those numbers were even more stark: only 7.17% of requests from India were approved, compared to 23.48% from the UK and 30.73% from South Africa.

Who can leave Australia?

Some people don’t require permission to leave Australia (and are not counted in the numbers above).

These include people who usually live overseas (as well as New Zealanders who ordinarily live here), aircraft crew or maintenance staff, freight workers, those who have “essential work at an offshore facility in Australian waters”, those travelling on official government business, and those travelling directly to New Zealand (who are not transiting from another country).

But most of us do need permission. Among the reasons would-be travellers are able to leave the country:

  • it’s part of the response to the COVID-19 outbreak (including the provision of aid)
  • business-related
  • necessary to receive urgent medical treatment that is not available in Australia
  • for a compelling reason for three months or longer
  • for compelling or compassionate reasons
  • or in the national interest.

Many of these concepts are very murky, and it is up to the decision-maker to determine the appropriate level of evidence required.

The data show that travelling overseas for a compelling reason for at least three months made up the vast majority of exemption approvals (71,249), while comparatively fewer requests were approved on compassionate and compelling grounds (28,391). By contrast, only 4,797 requests were approved for urgent and unavoidable personal business.

Some of these numbers are still fuzzy due to category adjustments. For example, “travelling overseas for at least three months” was included in the “urgent and unavoidable personal business” category prior to September 30, 2020.

Similarly, on January 8, 2021, “travelling overseas for at least three months” became “travelling overseas for a compelling reason for at least three months”.

We were unable to calculate the percentage of approvals from this data because no reason was available for a sizeable number of requests (25,966).




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Objective decision-making?

Although the Australian Border Force has released an operational directive to clarify how departure exemptions are granted, the data we obtained suggest the thresholds for decision-making are not as systematic (or objective) as desired.

In the period we examined, officials assessed 208,791 exemption requests and approved 119,922 applications. A further 17,017 requests were deemed not to require an individual exemption.

This means roughly 65% of requests were either approved or deemed not to require an exemption.

However, anyone granted an exemption to travel to India who had not yet left by early May had it revoked, following “expert health advice” that considered India a high-risk COVID-19 country.

Similar travel bans were not enacted for other countries — including the UK and US — despite the fact that, as of October 16 2020, the Department of Health has considered travellers arriving from any country besides New Zealand to be high risk.

Policy being made behind closed doors

In short, these data reveal the arbitrary nature of exit requests being granted or denied. It rings true with the anecdotal evidence we have heard from lawyers trying to assist people to leave, as well as would-be travellers themselves.

Much depends on who the decision-maker is in Home Affairs or the Australian Border Force, how they choose to exercise their discretion, and — based on these figures — where the person wants to go and for how long.

Without the opportunity for appeal, there is no independent review of how the factors are weighed, and little, if any oversight of the decisions being reached.




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When viewed alongside the barriers preventing the return home of thousands of Australian citizens and permanent residents, the highly variable rates of exit permissions suggest an arbitrariness stemming, in part, from the fact that both individual and policy decisions are being made behind closed doors.

While the Commonwealth, state and territory governments consistently premise their decisions on “the medical advice”, there is not always uniform consensus among medical experts.

Indeed, we have seen in the past week how slippery that notion can be — especially when the prime minister decides to make a unilateral decision about access to vaccines. Governments are effectively making political decisions dressed up as scientific ones, without any oversight from parliament or the public.The Conversation

Regina Jefferies, Affiliate, Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW and Jane McAdam, Scientia Professor and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Airline policies mandating vaccines will be a turbulent test of workplace rights


Giuseppe Carabetta, University of SydneyAirlines want you vaccinated. They want as many people as possible vaccinated. The sooner that happens, the sooner borders open and they can get back to profitability.

They also have reasons to want to protect both customers and staff from COVID-19. Qantas staff, for example, have been considering legal action over workplace transmissions.

Qantas has dangled the carrot of extra frequent flyer points for fully vaccinated passengers, plus ten “mega prizes” of a year’s free travel for familes. Virgin Australia has similar plans. It also has a scheme to encourage its workers to get vaccinated. This will reportedly include the chance to win extra annual leave.

Could they go further and mandate vaccines? This is something Cathay Pacific is doing, telling its Hong Kong-based flight crews they must be vaccinated by August or their employmnet will be reviewed.

Qantas chief Alan Joyce signalled in November that once vaccines are widely available it will require international travellers to be vaccinated. This implicitly suggests it will require the same from international flight staff.

But the legal ground in Australia for employers to insist that employees be vaccinated remains murky.

Whether Qantas or Virgin – or indeed any other company – do so may depend on the case of Queensland regional carrier Alliance Airlines, the first employer in Australia to insist all employees be immunised.




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A question of common law

Alliance Airlines specialises in flights to and from mining sites. It is 19.9% owned by Qantas, and collaborates with both Qantas and Virgin Australia.

It announced its mandatory policy for both influenza and COVID-19 vaccinations in late May. Its stated reason is to fulfil its duty to employees and passengers. But unions have questioned the policy’s lawfulness, arguing it is beyond the airline’s powers.

In Australia, there has been no general government guidance on whether employers can insist on employees getting COVID-19 vaccinations.

This differs to the United States, where the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in December 2020 that employers could (with some exemptions for medical and religious reasons) require employees to be vaccinated.

The Queensland and Western Australian governments have passed legislation mandating workers be vaccinated, but only in certain health and quarantine workplaces.

Whether Alliance Airlines’ policy is lawful therefore depends on a general common law “test” for determining the validity of workplace policies.

This test asks if a policy or direction is “lawful and reasonable” given the circumstances. These include:

  • the nature of the job, especially where it requires regular interactions with colleagues, clients and suppliers
  • if the work can be done remotely, or other reasonably practical precautions exist
  • the effectiveness or success rates of the vaccine
  • any guidance or directives from government and medical experts
  • the circumstances of individuals employee, such as whether they have reasonable grounds to refuse vaccination.

Unfair dismissal cases

Australia’s Fair Work Commission has demonstrated the balancing act needed to apply these factors in its most recent ruling in an unfair dismissal case involving a refusal to get an influenza vaccination.

The claim was brought by Maria Corazon Glover, a 64-year-old community care assistant, against Queensland aged and disability care provider Ozcare, her employer since 2009.

In May 2020, public health orders in Queensland required influenza vaccinations for entry into aged care facilities. Ozcare went “above and beyond” those requirements, mandating the flu vaccine for all its aged care workers, even those who did not work in facilities. Glover, a home-care provider, refused. She said she believed she would suffer an allergic reaction, based on what she understood had happened to her as a child. She was ultimately dismissed.

Commissioner Jennifer Hunt upheld her dismissal despite Ozcare’s policy exceeding the relevant public health orders and Glover’s concerns. Hunt ruled those factors were outweighed by the vulnerability of Ozcare’s clients, the frequency with which care workers visited clients’ homes (and their potential to become “super-spreaders”), and the employer’s “prerogative” to make a decision considered necessary to safeguard its clients and employees “so far is practicable to do so”.

Individual circumstances do count

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Glover v Ozcare is that it was decided on its particular facts. Employers must carefully assess employees’ situations to decide if a mandatory vaccination policy is justifiable.

An airline might reason that cabin crew interact with people in environments with a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission and where social distancing is impossible.

But an employee might counter that, unlike aged or disability care workers, they have much less close contact with high-risk, vulnerable individuals.

The case-by-case nature of the reasonableness test means any generalised “all in” vaccination policy is problematic. Even more so if there is employee resistance.

Discrimination may be valid

Employees who are dismissed for refusing to vaccinate might also argue it amounts to discrimination on prohibited grounds such as disability or pregnancy, where COVID-19 vaccination may be unsafe or pose medical risks.

Under the Fair Work Act, however, employers have a valid defence for discriminatory action if a policy or decision is based on the “inherent requirements” of the job.

In November 2020, Fair Work Deputy president Ingrid Asbury noted that vaccination against influenza was likely to be an inherent requirement for a position involving caring for young children, and so could be justified for child-care employees.

However, outside high-risk contexts such as child and health care, this defence may be limited and will turn on the employee’s role and the organisational context.




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Looking for safe ground

The Fair Work Commission’s rulings on influenza vaccines give a fair indication of the principles it will apply to any case involving COVID-19 vaccines.

But given the different circumstances, whether it will give a green light to a general policy like that of Alliance Airlines remains up in the air.

Qantas and Virgin might be on safer ground because of their international operations, if proof of vaccination becomes mandatory for other destinations.
However, I think the issue of employee vaccinations for the airline industry will ultimately be resolved via government intervention.

In other sectors, owing to the complexities in determining whether mandatory policies are “legal”, many employers will likely stick with the safer route of voluntary “incentive schemes” to encourage vaccinations.The Conversation

Giuseppe Carabetta, Senior Lecturer, Sydney University Business School, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Home quarantine for vaccinated returned travellers is extremely low risk, and won’t damage their mental health


Matt Dunham/AP/AAP

Gregory Dore, UNSWMany thousands of people need to return to Australia, and many at home wish to reunite with partners and family abroad.

A move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to quarantine is a way to make this happen — including home quarantine for vaccinated returnees.

The federal government implemented home quarantine over a short period in March 2020, before switching to mandatory hotel quarantine for returned residents and other incoming passengers.

But the considerably changed circumstances — most importantly, access to effective vaccines — calls for its reintroduction despite caution among politicians and the community.

The low rate of positive cases, and proven effectiveness of further safeguards to limit breaches, make home quarantine a persuasive strategy.

It’s worth remembering people who contract COVID, and their contacts, have successfully self-isolated at home since the pandemic began.

How will we make sure it’s safe?

There are several protective layers which would ensure extremely limited risk of home quarantine for fully vaccinated returned overseas travellers.

The first is requiring a negative COVID test within three days of departure, which is currently a requirement for all returnees.

The second is COVID vaccination. Recent studies indicate full vaccination provides 60-90% infection risk reduction. In cases where fully vaccinated people do get infected, these “breakthrough cases” are less infectious.

It’s also important to test returnees in home quarantine. A positive case would trigger testing of any contacts and may extend self-isolation.

Also, high levels of testing in the broader community can ensure early detection of outbreaks, enabling a rapid public health response to limit spread, if it did leak out of home quarantine.




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The risk would be extremely low

Data from hotel quarantine in New South Wales, which takes around half of returned travellers in Australia, suggests home quarantine for fully vaccinated returnees would likely present an extremely low risk.

In 2021, NSW has screened around 4,700 returnees a week, with the proportion of positive cases detected during quarantine averaging around 0.6%.

From March 1, since vaccination has become more accessible, only eight of 406 positive cases were fully vaccinated.

Unfortunately we don’t have the overall data on how many returnees were fully vaccinated, but even if only 10-20%, this would equate to a positive rate of around 6-12 per 10,000 among the vaccinated. This is considerably lower than the overall rate of 66 COVID cases per 10,000 since March 1.




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If home quarantine was initially restricted to fully vaccinated returnees from countries with low to moderate caseloads, the rate would be lower again, probably less than five per 10,000.

If NSW increased their quarantine intake by taking an extra 2,500 per week from this population into home quarantine, it would equate to maybe a few positive cases per month, compared to around 120 cases per month in hotel quarantine. As vaccination uptake increases, this capacity could be expanded, with reduced hotel quarantine requirements.

Will people comply?

The enormous desire for stranded Australian residents, overseas partners and family of residents in Australia to return and reunite should ensure a high level of compliance with home quarantine.

Home quarantine has been successfully implemented in other countries with elimination strategies such as Taiwan and Singapore. Taiwan’s system was deployed rapidly and has 99.7% compliance. Singapore uses a grading system to enable lower-risk returnee residents to do seven days in home quarantine, with a negative test required for release on day seven.

Two major reviews of the hotel quarantine system — the Victorian government-commissioned Coate report, and the national review of hotel quarantine — recommended implementing home quarantine with monitoring technology, such as electronic bracelets. Their recommendations were made prior to the approval of vaccines.

Recent data suggests the current hotel quarantine system has harmful effects. Research published in the Medical Journal of Australia in April found mental health issues were responsible for 19% of all emergency department presentations among people in NSW hotel quarantine. It’s highly likely home quarantine would be more beneficial for the mental health of returnees.

What are the barriers?

Issues which would need to be sorted through include:

  • methods for determining how risky different countries are
  • how returnees can prove they’ve been vaccinated
  • how we would test returnees and home-based contacts, and how frequently
  • and how long home quarantine would be for.

But none of these are insurmountable, and small-scale home quarantine already exists in the ACT.

Health authorities could ensure returnees can collect their own COVID testing samples, for example by doing nasal swabs or collecting saliva themselves. This would reduce contact with health workers.

Home quarantine is undoubtedly being considered by major Australian COVID policy committees, along with other measures to enable a larger number of returnees and to increase the safety of the quarantine system.

Australians’ excessive caution continues to have direct consequences for the well-being of many thousands of stranded Australian residents, together with non-resident partners and family members desperate to return.

It’s time to change this situation and make their human rights a public health priority.


The author would like to thank John Kaldor, Esther Rockett, and Liz Hicks for their input.The Conversation

Gregory Dore, Scientia Professor, Kirby Institute; Infectious Diseases Physician, St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Should we vaccinate all returned travellers in hotel quarantine? It’s no magic fix but it could reduce risks


Catherine Bennett, Deakin UniversityThis week, a returned traveller who was quarantining in South Australia seems to have been infected with the virus during his stay, before testing positive once returning to Melbourne. It’s the latest in a long line of hotel quarantine leaks in Australia.

And in this week’s federal budget, the government has committed to welcoming back over 17,000 Australians stranded overseas over the next year, which will likely place more pressure on our hotel quarantine system.

In light of the seemingly continued spillover of hotel quarantine infections into the community, one researcher raised an intriguing possibility online: should we vaccinate all arrivals on day one of their stay in hotel quarantine?

There may be reasonably high vaccination rates among our arrivals already. But, if not, it’s definitely something worth thinking about.

In my view, overseas travellers should be considered equivalent to frontline workers, as they traverse the routes into Australia and cross through border quarantine. Therefore, they could be included in phase 1a of the vaccine rollout alongside these frontline workers.

It’s complex and there’s a lot to take into account, and vaccinating all arrivals won’t be the magic fix to our hotel quarantine troubles. But it might take the edge off some of the transmission risks.

You only have to prevent one case, which could have otherwise led to community spread and lockdown, for such a scheme to pay for itself many times over.

Here’s how it could work.

Vaccinating all arrivals could reduce infection risk

There are a number of potential ways this strategy could reduce infection risk, by:

  • preventing severe illness in people already infected
  • reducing the chance returnees will pass the virus on if they are infected, or become infected
  • protecting them from infection should they be exposed to the virus while in quarantine.

A Public Health England study found that a case who has had a single dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine is up to 50% less likely to pass the virus on to their close household contacts.

However, when the researchers looked more closely at the timing, they found the full 40-50% reduction in transmission risk only occurred when the case received their first dose five or six weeks before becoming infected. In fact Pfizer didn’t reduce the transmission risk cases posed to others unless the first dose was given at least 14 days before the case became infected. In other words, giving returned travellers a dose of Pfizer while in quarantine might be too late to protect others.




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In saying that, the same study shows AstraZeneca’s vaccine does appear to at least partly reduce the transmission potential of cases even when the dose is given on the same day that person was infected.

In those who’ve received the AstraZeneca vaccine on day zero of their infection, the chance of them transmitting the virus to their close contacts over the ten days or so they’re infectious was on average roughly 20% lower than positive cases who weren’t vaccinated.

Getting the AstraZeneca vaccine when exposed to the virus, or soon after, might therefore marginally protect the wider population if, for example, a traveller contracts the virus late in quarantine and it isn’t picked up in day 12 testing and is released from quarantine.

Both Pfizer and AstraZeneca do provide partial protection from infection within 12 days of the first dose. While this is too late for those already infected, it might still provide some protection from infection for those exposed to the virus in the later stages of their stay in quarantine.

Both vaccines also appear to reduce the risk of subsequently dying from COVID-19 with an 80% reduction in deaths reported in the UK. Some in this study were infected within seven days of their first vaccine dose, but we do not know how this effectiveness against deaths changes with time since vaccination from this report.

Nevertheless, there might be some additional value in offering vaccines to both slightly reduce transmission rates and mitigate against serious illness and death in people who do become infected.

One challenge is that AstraZeneca has more to offer in reducing transmission risk in the first critical two weeks after receiving the first jab, but Australia currently doesn’t advise it for people under 50. Pfizer is in limited supply and our vaccine rollout phase 1a and 1b recipients haven’t all been fully vaccinated yet. The relative risks and benefits of reallocating some of our vaccine supply and delivery must be carefully thought through.

Many of those arriving in Australia will likely have opted for vaccination before travel, if available to them, even if just to increase their chances of testing negative and being allowed to board their flights home. Many are arriving from countries that began their vaccination programs months before Australia.

How many returnees are already vaccinated?

The number of positive cases in hotel quarantine has grown month on month, from 160 in February to 469 in April.

New South Wales provides the most detailed information on returned travellers. Its latest surveillance report on about 21,000 returnees shows 180, or 0.8%, tested positive to COVID-19. About 75% of these positive cases tested positive by day two, suggesting they were exposed before arriving in Australia or in transit.




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More than a dozen COVID leaks in 6 months: to protect Australians, it’s time to move quarantine out of city hotels


The report does include information on how many arrivals have been vaccinated since March 1. Of the 302 positive cases reported to the start of May, 20 had been vaccinated, with six fully vaccinated (two doses at least two weeks prior) and 14 partially vaccinated. Although, those considered “fully vaccinated” might not have been two weeks post-vaccine at the time they actually contracted the virus.

We haven’t been provided the overall vaccination rates for returnees across Australian hotel quarantine, so we can’t yet work out what percentage of arrivals are vaccinated. But if this is quite low, it strengthens the argument for offering vaccines to travellers on arrival.The Conversation

Catherine Bennett, Chair in Epidemiology, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

COVID has made one thing very clear — we do not know enough about Australians overseas


Bianca De MarchI/AAP

George Tan, Charles Darwin University; Andrew Taylor, Charles Darwin University, and Kelly McDougall, University of South AustraliaThe COVID-19 crisis has thrust a largely unseen part of Australia’s population firmly into the national spotlight.

These are the Australians who live and work abroad — our diaspora.

For more than a year, we have been hearing harrowing stories of Australians unable to get home. Most recently, there is the distress of those in India, currently banned from even trying to return.

But despite increasing awareness of this group, there is still much we don’t know about our diaspora. The bottom line is, we don’t have precise or up-to-date information about Australians overseas.

This lack of knowledge and understanding highlights the need for a national diaspora policy that truly reflects contemporary, multicultural Australia.

What do we know about Australians overseas?

Australia’s diaspora is estimated to include around one million people, but this would be significantly higher if former residents, such as international students, were included.

Australian family returning to Canberra in November 2020.
COVID-19 has seen more than 400,000 Australians return home, but more than 30,000 are still registered as wanting to come back.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Large-scale studies in 2003 and 2006 told us Australians overseas tend to be highly educated and highly valued by employers. Many also retain links with family and friends in Australia. They continue to identify as Australian and intend to eventually come back.

In 2004, without putting a number on them, the Lowy Institute identified five sub-groups of expats.

  1. The who’s who — people at the pinnacle of their careers in significant international positions
  2. Gold collar workers — highly-skilled, well-paid Australians developing their careers on the international stage
  3. Other professionals — including nurses or teachers
  4. Return migrants — first or second generation Australians, going to their family’s original country for family or professional reasons
  5. Rite of passage travellers — young Australians living or working overseas.

Organisations such as Advance (which is supported by federal government funding) work to connect Australians overseas with each other and Australia. The focus here is on high-profile or very successful expats and how we can leverage their skills and networks to Australia’s advantage.

Traditionally, the majority of departures from Australia have been to Europe, the United States and New Zealand. This has lead to a narrative that doesn’t necessarily reflect the make-up of Australia’s population living overseas and Australia’s multicultural story.

We know from immigration and short-term travel data (those away for less than a year) that Asia, and in particular countries such as India, China, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan, are increasingly important for Australians.




Read more:
Is Australia’s India travel ban legal? A citizenship law expert explains


Long-term departure data present a similar picture. Our analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows India saw a 54% increase as a destination for Australian residents between 2007-08 and 2016-17.

So, the idea that Australia’s diaspora is largely made up of young Aussies backpacking in Europe, or hyper-successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley is an outdated one. There is every indication today’s diaspora is complex, and largely made up of everyday Australians doing everyday things.

Yet, we don’t have comprehensive or up-to-date data on where Australians are overseas, what they are doing and whether they are planning to come back.

Why don’t we have a clearer picture?

At a broader level, Australia’s national focus has been on our immigrants, for whom detailed data are recorded and available from the Department of Home Affairs and Bureau of Statistics.

Emigrants have long been an understudied element of Australia’s migration story.

Qantas plane leaving Perth from London in 2018.
Australia does not have a dedicated policy to keep track of and make use of its citizens living overseas.
Tony McDonough/AAP

One of the reasons for our limited and outdated information on our diaspora is the voluntary nature of registration with the Department of Foreign Affairs’ SmartTraveller program.

In 2017, Australia also stopped collecting information on intended destination and reasons for travel on outgoing passenger cards. This was to improve the “traveller experience” and streamline the border clearance process.

Meanwhile, despite recommendations from Senate committees in 2005 and 2013, Australia has not set up a dedicated diaspora policy and monitoring unit within government.

Why do we need a diaspora policy?

At a basic level, a diaspora policy would provide a formal commitment to strengthen links and maintain connections with Australians abroad.

Aside from taking advantage of the knowledge and skills of Australians overseas (which can influence bilateral trade, business and investment opportunities), a diaspora policy should also foster engagement by attending to the welfare of Australians overseas.

COVID-19 has shown us how important it is to understand where Australians are and their circumstances in a time of crisis.

This lack of information makes it difficult to plan and help people quickly. A holistic, consistent and ongoing dataset would tell governments where the pressure points are in times of crisis — where are most of our citizens? How old are they? How vulnerable might they be?

How can we do it better?

A commitment to deeper engagement with our diaspora is fundamental. In addition to a diaspora policy, a relatively easy way to get a better grip on Australians overseas would be to improve how Australians interact with SmartTraveller, so it becomes second nature for travellers to register and update their movements when overseas.




Read more:
The crisis in India is a terrifying example of why we need a better way to get Australians home


Another alternative is to use census data from destination countries. This requires greater synchronisation among national censuses as suggested by the United Nations. However, this also means we are relying on other countries’ data collection, not our own.

We could also look at regular large scale “census-like” surveys of Australians living overseas.

Getting a better grip on Australians overseas will have huge benefits in terms of planning, our economy and national identity. Bringing our diaspora back into our national population and migration story will help us understand its true character, nature and value.

Importantly, it will also move beyond the narrative of Australians overseas as either a “burden” or an “asset”.The Conversation

George Tan, Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Andrew Taylor, Associate professor, Charles Darwin University, and Kelly McDougall, Research fellow, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Official medical advice warned of health risks Australians stranded in India face


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraThe official medical advice to the Morrison government recommending “pausing” Australian arrivals from India also contained a blunt warning that those stranded risk serious illness and even death.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly’s advice said: “It is important in any measures we implement that we balance the burden on our quarantine and health systems and the protection of our community with the need to help Australians to get home, including those currently residing in high risk countries”.

Kelly said COVID-19 continued to be “a severe and immediate threat” to health in Australia and India was a high risk country, with a sharp increase recently in the number and proportion of overseas-acquired cases coming from there.

“Each new case identified in quarantine increases the risk of leakage into the Australian community through transmission to quarantine workers or other quarantined returnees and subsequently into the Australian community more broadly,” Kelly wrote in his Friday advice to Health Minister Greg Hunt.

“This quarantine ‘leakage’ presents a significant risk to the Australian community.”

The advice was in relation to the government’s determination under the Biosecurity Act – announced in the early hours of Saturday – which makes it an offence for anyone to enter Australia if they have been in India in the preceding two weeks.

This was to close any loopholes enabling people to arrive via third countries after the government suspended flights from India until at least May 15.

Kelly said in his advice, running to more than three pages, that Australia’s quarantine and health resources to prevent and control COVID from international arrivals were limited.

“Due to the high proportion of positive cases arising from arrivals from India, I consider a pause until 15 May 2021 on arrivals from India to be an effective and proportionate measure to maintain the integrity of Australia’s quarantine system,” he said.

But Kelly was careful to put on record a clear warning about the dangers faced by Australians who could not get home.

“I wish to note the potential consequences for Australian citizens and permanent residents as a result of this pause on flights and entry into Australia.

“These include the risk of serious illness without access to health care, the potential for Australians to be stranded in a transit country, and in a worst-case scenario, deaths.”

However he said “these serious implications can be mitigated through having the restriction only temporarily in place, i.e a pause, and by ensuring there are categories of exemptions.”

Under the law, action taken must be no more restrictive or intrusive than necessary and in place only so long as needed.

The determination will expire on May 15 unless extended.

The exemptions include crews of aircraft and vessels and associated workers, Australian officials, defence personnel and diplomats and family members, foreign diplomats accredited to Australia and family members, and members of an Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT).

There are more than 9,000 Australian citizens and residents registered in India of whom 650 are considered vulnerable.

The advice pointed out this would be “the first time that such a determination has been used to prevent Australian citizens and permanent residents entering Australia”.

On Monday Kelly was anxious to say he had nothing to do with the penalties that exist for breaching the determination, which include large fines and up to five years prison and have received much negative publicity. His letter did note the penalties the act carries.

Scott Morrison told 2GB the arrangement was aimed at ensuring Australia did not get a third wave of COVID and its quarantine system could remain strong.

He downplayed the sanctions, saying they would be used appropriately and responsibly.

Morrison said people who had been in third countries for 14 days could return home to Australia. “But if they haven’t, then they have to wait those 14 days.”

Asked on the ABC whether the government should vaccinate Australians stranded in India, Kelly said: “It’s certainly worth looking at. I would say, though, that we know that many of the Australians that are in India at the moment, they’re very scattered. So it’s a huge country; being able to get to them would be a challenge”.

Queensland Nationals senator Matt Canavan has condemned the government’s stand, tweeting:The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Human Rights Commission expresses ‘deep concerns’ at ban on returnees from India


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraThe Australian Human Rights Commission has declared the government’s travel ban on Australians returning from India, including criminal sanctions, “raises serious human rights concerns”.

In a strong statement at the weekend the commission said it held “deep concerns about these extraordinary new restrictions on Australians returning to Australia from India”.

It called on the government to show the measures were “not discriminatory” and were “the only suitable way of dealing with the threat to public health”.

The commission also urged the senate committee on COVID-19 to review the restrictions immediately, and said it was approaching the government directly with its concerns.

Last week the government stopped repatriation and commercial flights from India until at least May 15, and said indirect access was also blocked. After it found there was a loophole through Doha, it took drastic action to close all gaps.

In a statement issued in the early hours of Saturday, the government said all travellers from India would be banned from entering Australia if they had been in that country within 14 days of their intended arrival date in Australia, and anyone who breached the provision could face a large fine, imprisonment for five years, or both.

The government is acting under the Biosecurity Act.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said it was “critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of COVID-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level”.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the temporary pause on returns from India under the Biosecurity Act was ‘entirely founded” in the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.

She said in the month before the decision on Indian returnees 57% of the COVID positive cases in quarantine were in arrivals from India, up from 10% the month before that.

This was “placing a very, very significant burden on health and medical services in the states and territories and through the quarantine program.”

But she flatly denied this proved the government did not have confidence in the quarantine system, and rejected any suggestion of racism.

The chair of the senate COVID committee, Labor’s Katy Gallagher, said on Sunday she would be looking to schedule a hearing on the matter as soon as the committee could do so.

Meanwhile a poll done by the Lowy Institute and released on Monday found that in the second half of March – before the issue with returnees from India blew up – nearly six in ten people (59%) believed the federal government had done the right amount in helping Australians overseas return home. A third (33%) said the government had not done enough.

The Lowy COVIDpoll, with a sample of 2222 people, is part of the Lowy annual survey of Australian attitudes to the world.

Australians were divided over how much freedom they should have to travel abroad.

The poll found 41% agreed that only Australians granted special exemptions should be allowed to leave, which is the current policy.
But 40% said those who had been vaccinated should be allowed to leave. Only 18% believed all Australians should be free to travel.

People overwhelmingly (95%) said Australia had handled COVID well.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The crisis in India is a terrifying example of why we need a better way to get Australians home


Divyakant Solanki/AP/EPA

Liz Hicks, The University of MelbourneThe federal government’s suspension of flights from India leaves some 9,000 Australian citizens stranded, 650 of whom are registered as financially or medically vulnerable. They are trapped in a country where hospitals are running out of oxygen, and where the number of new infections is more than 300,000 per day.

Along with the unfolding humanitarian disaster, the suspension of flights is yet another example of the ongoing dysfunction of Australia’s repatriation system.

As I have explained in my recent research, the pandemic has created a temporary, but desperate minority in Australia. These are the roughly 34,000 citizens abroad who are currently registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs as wanting help to get home, though the true number is likely far higher.

Australia continues to have a large diaspora living and working abroad, who cannot register with the government until they have attempted to return home of their own accord.

So how did we end up here?

A consistent theme of Australia’s response to COVID-19 — including leaks in hotel quarantine — has been to blame individuals (be they guards or travellers), rather than the way the system is designed.

At the time of writing, Australia’s hotel quarantine programs have “leaked” 16 times. Many have come from poor ventilation and inadequate protocol for personal protective equipment. Experts say more must be done to prevent aerosol transmission of the virus.

When leaks have occurred, the political instinct of Australian governments has been to reduce the caps on overseas arrivals and — increasingly — point the finger at members of the public who have left Australia on federal government-approved exemptions.

The West Australian government’s response to its most recent leak is a useful case study. Despite warnings in March the Mercure hotel was “high risk”, it was not pulled from operation. Amid Premier Mark McGowan’s criticism of people travelling to India for family events, Western Australia has now halved its cap.

But a defective system not designed to accommodate aerosol transmission will continue to leak even with the reduced cap. It will merely do so at a lower rate.

Banning flights from India follows this logic. Australian governments have argued it is necessary to reduce the number of positive cases in quarantine. This implicitly acknowledges fundamental flaws in Australia’s hotel quarantine programs.

No constitutional right to return

Australians abroad have limited protection in this situation.

Australia is one of the only liberal democracies in the world without a bill of rights. Minority rights were explicitly rejected during the constitutional conventions during the 1890s, with a view that minorities

must trust to the sense of justice of the majority.

The lack of a rights framework creates particular problems during crises, when popular responses emerge in an atmosphere of fear and urgency. For a majority unaffected by travel bans, halving caps and suspending flights is an easy solution in the face of government failures. It also appeals to Australia’s cultural and historical reflexes regarding border control.

It also means Australia doesn’t necessarily prioritise its citizens or residents amongst arrivals. In February, only 44% of Australian arrivals were citizens. Victoria has now proposed introducing a separate stream for “economic cohorts”, even as it insists members of the public should only be allowed to leave and return for “genuinely urgent or compassionate reasons”.

Quarantine confusion

To make matters more complicated (and tougher for Australians trying to get home), we have a federal framework for quarantine. Quarantine is a “concurrent legislative power”. This means the federal government may assume responsibility for running quarantine, or it may leave it to the states. Ideally, the federal and state governments would work together and pool resources based on their respective strengths to maximise capacity and safety.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
The federal government has suspended all flights from India until May 15.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

At an initial National Cabinet meeting, it was agreed the states would assume responsibility for running quarantine. The public has no insight into the reason for this decision, with National Cabinet deliberations remaining secret. It is likely the Commonwealth lacked short-term capacity, having dismantled quarantine infrastructure over many decades.

But with little public understanding of the complexities of federalism, governments of all levels have deflected responsibility to one another. Labor governments and oppositions at state and federal level claim quarantine is a “federal constitutional responsibility”. The federal Coalition claims responsibility lies with the states.

A need for leadership

As we move into the second year of travel bans, there are real questions about Australia’s longer-term strategy for facilitating essential travel in and out of the country — particularly for the 30% of Australians born overseas with family and significant ties elsewhere.




Read more:
Should Aussies stranded overseas go to the United Nations for help to get home?


Within this are questions about how sustainable flight suspensions will be over coming years, with many developing countries unlikely to be vaccinated until 2024.

As the situation in India shows, there is a desperate need for leadership at both state and federal level to design systems that can facilitate essential travel until borders can safely reopen.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to occur until voters insist political leaders step up.The Conversation

Liz Hicks, PhD / Dr. iur. candidate, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.