Australians approved for international travel to jump vaccine rollout queue

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Australians who are approved to travel overseas will be granted priority access to Covid vaccinations under a plan agreed to by the prime minister with state and territory leaders.

The proposal, which would reduce the vulnerability of Australians heading overseas during the pandemic, may prove controversial given the vaccine rollout is not yet completed even for the highest priority groups including disability care residents.

Under pressure from the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, the Morrison government has also agreed to review the travel exemptions that have allowed more than 130,000 Australians to leave the country since the pandemic began in early 2020.

In April, McGowan, supported by the Victorian government, called for a crackdown on exemptions, arguing that weddings and “athletics meets” were not good enough reasons to travel overseas to potential coronavirus hotspots.

Related: States to help federal government repatriate citizens stuck in India as soon as flight ban ends

A national cabinet statement, released after Friday’s meeting of Australia’s leaders, said it had “agreed to vaccinate essential outbound Australian travellers with [Australian Border Force] travel exemptions approvals”.

“This includes only people travelling in response to the Covid-19 outbreak including in the Pacific; urgent medical treatment; national interest; critical industries and business; compassionate and compelling grounds; urgent and unavoidable personal business.”

The list of “essential” reasons for travel largely matches the current list of exemptions – although it appears to add that allowable business travel must be “critical”.

Guardian Australia understands potential travellers would first apply for an exemption to leave the country and then, if approved, get vaccinated by a GP or at a state mass vaccination clinic.

The plan could be difficult to implement for those under 50 given the Pfizer vaccine is recommended by health authorities but in short supply. Whether a traveller would require one or both doses of a vaccine before departing Australia is yet to be determined.

National cabinet agreed to “continue the restrictions in place in respect of applications for travel to high-risk countries”.

The commonwealth is also considering imposing requirements for a rapid antigen test on travel from countries being used to transit from India to Australia. The Australian government is monitoring the situation and in talks with the Sri Lankan government.

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On Monday, the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, opened the door to reviewing exemptions to Australia’s outbound travel ban in response to the worsening coronavirus situation overseas.

Hawke told ABC’s 7.30 program that exemptions had “fluctuated” over time with more granted “as things became more positive” and fewer during the second outbreak in Victoria.

“As we take further advice, we’ll have to keep considering that around the world,” he said. “The government is consistently adapting its policy to what’s happening.”

After Hawke’s comments, a spokesperson for McGowan told Guardian Australia: “It was pleasing the commonwealth took up the premier’s idea to significantly clamp down on the number of Australians going overseas to high-risk locations.”

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