Could Australia's strict Covid border controls work for the UK?

Jessica Abrahams
·3-min read
The empty arrivals terminal at the Gold Coast Airport is closed off by barriers in a photo dated 10 July 2020 - ALBERT PEREZ/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The empty arrivals terminal at the Gold Coast Airport is closed off by barriers in a photo dated 10 July 2020 - ALBERT PEREZ/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

British experts weighing up tighter border restrictions to combat the spread of Covid-19 have been studying Australia's strict model, which has helped the country maintain one of the lowest caseloads in the world.

The Australian border is currently closed to everyone except citizens and permanent residents, with some exemptions including seasonal workers, travellers in transit, and airline or maritime crew.

Even then, most people arriving must quarantine at an official facility - usually a repurposed hotel - at their own expense for at least 14 days, and receive two negative tests before they can leave. The cost of quarantine varies but in New South Wales it is AUD$3,000 (£1,700) for a solo traveller.

With some variations, these restrictions have been in place since the end of March.

There is also a cap on the number of international arrivals, which was recently tightened further. The caps vary by state from about 490 to 1,500 arrivals per week. That has left thousands of Australians stranded abroad and divided families.

A worker wearing PPE mops the floor at the entrance to a quarantine hotel in Melbourne - JAMES ROSS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A worker wearing PPE mops the floor at the entrance to a quarantine hotel in Melbourne - JAMES ROSS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The logistics of the border closures have also been complex. The system came under fire after an outbreak in Melbourne over the summer was linked to the quarantine hotels and more recently there have been cases of hotel workers taking the virus into the community.

Staff working at the quarantine hotels wear PPE and are regularly tested but do not have to quarantine. Maritime and international airline crew were previously asked to self-isolate but must now quarantine in hotels or on board their ship.

Despite the exemptions and flaws in the system, Australia has managed to keep its case count low - its overall tally of 28,760 is lower than the UK's current daily rate of 40,000.

But some say its relative isolation makes it easier to impose stricter measures. International visitor numbers to the UK each year are far higher than to Australia - the UK welcomed 40.9 million tourists in 2019 compared to Australia’s 9.4 million - although coronavirus has already dampened this significantly. VisitBritain estimates a drop of 76 per cent compared to 2019.

Freight queues at the Port of over - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Freight queues at the Port of over - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The importance of road freight to UK supply chains is also a problem that Australia, a more isolated island nation, doesn’t have to deal with. About 2.4 million road haulage vehicles passed through the Port of Dover alone in 2019 and lorry drivers were among those exempt from quarantine restrictions imposed on some travellers to the UK over summer.

But experts say that even with the inevitable exemptions, tougher border restrictions are an important measure to control the virus.

Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary, University of London, said the main benefit would be to lock out new variants that could have severe health impacts or potentially undermine vaccine efforts.

“Recent events show that allowing new variants to develop or be imported could be a huge gamble, as we still don't understand the properties of these variants,” she said.

“I think we do need managed quarantine with support for 14 days, with limited exemptions,” she said, adding that those who are exempt could be subject to repeated tests to minimise risk.

Julian Jessop, an economics fellow at the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, added: “Anything that further disrupts international trade would be bad for the UK economy, but this may be another price worth paying to get on top of Covid.

“The impact on the services sector is likely to be small, as few tourists are coming anyway, and most professional services have moved online… It also seems unlikely that the government would impose further restrictions on those moving goods, such as lorry drivers, than those that already exist.”