Australia to allow international university students to return before all state borders open

Paul Karp

The federal government will no longer require individual states to have opened their internal borders before allowing international students to return to Australia, acknowledging the situation in Victoria requires a “ring of containment”, Guardian Australia understands.

The health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Tuesday that the federal government accepts that state border closures with Victoria are necessary given the rising cases of Covid-19 in the state. Previously, the federal government had ruled that international students would not be allowed into states maintaining internal border closures.

The decision to lift the condition could give the green light to a pilot scheme in South Australia, and further proposals in development in Queensland and New South Wales.

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On Friday the secure corridor working group met to discuss the conditions for international student pilots, which require agreement from both the federal and state or territory government.

An education department spokesperson told Guardian Australia that preconditions for the return of international students “include the reopening of internal state and territory borders within Australia, as well as the return to on-campus learning for the benefit of domestic students and the international students who are already in Australia”.

“Robust health, quarantine, border and provider protocols also need to be in place,” the department said. “There is no fixed timeline for the return of international students.”

But on Tuesday Hunt said the federal government accepted the need for “rings of containment” in suburbs, regions such as north-west Tasmania, or a whole state “when it’s required”.

“Now is the moment when we believe that step, for the first time, is required and necessary, and it relates specifically and exclusively to the challenges that Victoria is facing,” he told ABC News Breakfast.

“This is the first time that we believe that the triggers have been met and the challenges are such with numbers that it’s appropriate, required and necessary.”

Hunt said the “ring of containment” was “difficult … temporary, but sadly it is necessary” because although the “very serious outbreak” is particularly concentrated in the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne it is “not exclusively confined to them”.

“That’s why our task is very clear … to make sure that we’re controlling our international borders and preventing the bringing of cases, which is why we have been doing using the hotel quarantine.”

Guardian Australia understands the federal government will now not insist that states and territories reopen their borders to Victoria as a condition for approval of pilots.

NSW, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland have all closed their borders to Victorians. Western Australia has closed its border to everyone.

The ACT – which is the site of the the first pilot for the Australian National University and University of Canberra – has not banned travel from Victoria but will impose a two-week quarantine on people travelling from the state.

The federal government has not yet received a pilot plan from Queensland. NSW submitted an ambitious proposal for up to 30,000 international students to return in groups of 250 a day from July. The federal government rejected that proposal and asked NSW to revise its downwards.

The Australian has reported the federal government is also considering granting graduate work rights to international students who are forced to remain overseas and study online because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which the universities sector has been calling for for months.

Under the ACT international student pilot, ANU and University of Canberra propose to fly 350 international students to Canberra from an as-yet undecided hub to resume their studies in July.

A spokesman for ANU told Guardian Australia: “We don’t yet know the impact of the NSW-Victoria border closure on the ACT and are working through our arrangements for affected students to ensure they are able to successfully continue their studies.

“We are continuing to work through the details of the pilot with the aim to return a small group of continuing international students safely back to their life in Canberra.”

The spokesman said the pilot will only occur with “stringent pre-departure and post-arrival testing, and when it goes ahead will operate under the strict arrival and quarantine protocols that has seen the ACT successfully manage overseas repatriations over the past few months”.

A Queensland government spokesperson said international education is “vital to Queensland’s economic recovery” and it continues to work with the federal government to get the sector “back to business as soon as possible”.

Despite Queensland lifting its border ban to all states except Victoria from 10 July, the commonwealth still intends to intervene in constitutional challenges against the border ban, which have been remitted to the federal court.

The attorney general, Christian Porter, told Guardian Australia the commonwealth had intervened to provide “a view regarding whether constitutionally the border closures are permitted in certain circumstances and not others”.

“Clearly the courts will be required to consider whether … border restrictions were proportionate to the health crisis at specific points in time as Australia dealt with the immediate and longer-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the court would expect to hear from the commonwealth on those types of significant constitutional questions.”

The two challenges against Queensland’s ban have been adjourned to a future date while Clive Palmer’s challenge to the Western Australian border will return to the federal court on 13 and 14 July.

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