Australian PM pushes for quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand by Christmas

Calla Wahlquist
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Scott Morrison wants quarantine-free international travel to New Zealand by Christmas, as part of a three-stage plan to get the nation to Covid-normal by the end of the year.

The prime minister outlined the plan at the national cabinet meeting on Friday, with a travel bubble potentially including other approved low-risk nations, and a trial, operating from early December, to allow seasonal workers and international students to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine outside of a supervised hotel setting.

Morrison also lobbied Victoria to accept international arrivals, as part of a push to increase the weekly cap on returned travellers to 6,000. The federal government has said it aims to have all 26,000 Australians registered to return home back in the country by Christmas.

The first repatriation flight from London landed in Darwin on Friday with 161 passengers who will quarantine at Howard Springs.

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He said that, following discussions with Victorian premier Daniel Andrews in national cabinet, he was “hoping they will be able to make a move on being able to receive international arrivals”.

“That day isn’t here yet but I know it’s a priority for the premier because he wants to see Victorians come home,” he said.

Asked ahead of the national cabinet meeting if Victoria would be accepting international flights by Christmas, Andrews said that’s “certainly our aim” but not before the hotel quarantine inquiry had delivered its final report on 6 November.

Speaking at his daily press conference, the Victorian premier said an outbreak at a school in Melbourne’s northern suburbs would not delay a “significant” easing of restrictions from Sunday and he was “confident in where things are at the moment”.

As of Friday there were 800 people in Victoria under self-isolation orders as contacts and close contacts of coronavirus cases, including 400 people connected to the 83 families whose children attend East Preston Islamic school.

Authorities announced on Wednesday that a student had tested positive. A parent of another child who attends the school – but who did not have direct contact with the first student or their family – has also since tested positive.

It was the only new case recorded in Victoria on Friday. There are just five active cases in aged care and seven among healthcare workers.

Meanwhile, New South Wales reported no new locally acquired cases on Friday, but seven new cases in hotel quarantine.

Andrews said the school outbreak did not necessarily mean there was broader transmission in the school community.

“We are very well placed to make some significant announcements on Sunday and they will be a testament to the absolute determination of the Victorian community to see this thing off,” he said. “This is a good number.”

Andrews said Sunday’s announcement would outline changes t that would take place over subsequent days and weeks, and foreshadowed changes to the 25km limit, the border between metropolitan and regional Victoria, and limits on which businesses are allowed to operate.

Victoria’s commander of testing and community engagement, Jeroen Weimar, said authorities had begun asymptomatic testing to try to identify any possible connection between the two cases linked to the school community.

“I would urge any family who has a child at East Preston College to please come forward for testing today,” Weimar said. “Regardless of whether you have symptoms or not, we [want to] ensure that we really run this to ground as quickly as possible.

“And the fact we now have two positive cases in the broader school community, although they are not linked at this point, we are keen to ensure there are no other traces anywhere else in that wider community.”

Earlier Victoria’s head of contact tracing, Prof Euan Wallace, told the ABC his team had “put a ring around” the northern suburbs outbreak.

Weimar said isolation advice on a public housing block in Broadmeadows, where a positive case was identified this week, had been lifted after 86 residents had returned negative tests, and public spaces in the building had been deep-cleaned.

“Given we have tested over two-thirds of the people in that building, we are confident there is no reason to suspect community transmission beyond the original family that were there, and they relocated a couple of days ago to alternative accommodation,” he said.

Weimar also said that all the day 11 tests for the 400 people placed into isolation as close contacts of the Shepparton cluster had been returned, and all were negative.

“What we saw yesterday at Broadmeadows, and what we’ve seen at Shepparton, and what we’ve seen at Kilmore, is the importance of going wide quickly,” he said.

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“Testing as many people as possible and then trying to focus in on any remaining cases that we have. That will be our approach, continue to be our approach over the next few days.”

Andrews said the data from the Preston outbreak would be analysed before Sunday’s announcement but said he was not pursuing an elimination strategy. He also ruled out the idea of locking down particular suburbs of Melbourne, saying it would require a hard border between suburbs that was unfeasible.

“What we know is there will be more virus out there than we can ever detect on any given day,” he said. “Short of testing everybody every day there will also be some of this virus bubbling out there.

“That’s why we are not trying to get it down to zero forever because we would be closed for a much longer period of time if we tried to achieve that.”

Andrews also dismissed a suggestion that the absence of Prof Brett Sutton at the daily press conference for the fourth day in a row – in a week in which he has been facing scrutiny in the hotel quarantine inquiry – gave a public signal that he had lost faith in the chief health officer.

“I wouldn’t make that acknowledgment at all,” he said.