Why is Australia still accepting international travellers?

Despite a concerning uptick in locally acquired cases of COVID-19 in Victoria, overall the majority of cases recorded in Australia have come from overseas.

Most of the people coming back to Australia or in hotel quarantine are citizens or permanent residents, but where they’ve come from tells a story in itself.

Here’s where cases have come from over time, and where Australians making their way home are coming from.

Where are the infections coming from?

According to the latest epidemiology report published by the National Incident Room, most of Australia’s cases have been acquired overseas, and the majority of those cases came from either Europe or cruise ships.

But data from the past month show the rate of infections entering Australia from those sources has dried up.

“Over the four weeks ending Sunday June 21, 2020, most overseas-acquired cases have reported a travel history to the regions of southern and central Asia, north Africa and the Middle East or at sea,” a spokeswoman from the Department of Health said.

“Some cases also reported a travel history to the regions of the Americas, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.”

According to earlier versions of the epidemiology report, in the early days of COVID-19, all cases reported in Australia had travel history in China.

But by the time case numbers began to accelerate rapidly in mid-March, most of the overseas-acquired cases being detected were coming from Europe and the Americas.

2 travellers stand before a Perth hotel desk. 2 masked security guards offer to take their luggage.2 travellers stand before a Perth hotel desk. 2 masked security guards offer to take their luggage.
Hotel quarantine has been in place since late March.(ABC News: James Carmody)

As border restrictions hardened and international arrivals dropped to historic lows, the source of infections acquired overseas shifted to southern and central Asia, north Africa and the Middle-East.

The spokeswoman said that reflected trends in repatriation efforts.

“Due to international travel restrictions, those individuals arriving in Australia are generally arriving via charter or repatriation flights,” she said.

“The point of origin for incoming individuals is therefore not representative of what we would expect to see outside of the pandemic environment.”

Who is travelling to Australia?

Currently, only Australian citizens, permanent residents and their families are allowed to travel to Australia.

The Australian Border Force will grant some exemptions for compassionate reasons, and for diplomats, officials travelling at the invitation of the Federal Government and people with “critical skills”.

But most of the people entering Australia are coming home.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), more than 25,000 people have been returned to Australia via repatriation flights, with hundreds of thousands more having made their own way home since mid-March.

“More than 348,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents have returned to Australia since March 13, 2020,” a DFAT spokeswoman said.

“As of June 29, DFAT has helped more than 26,600 Australian citizens and permanent residents to return home on more than 315 flights, of which 60 were directly facilitated by the Government.”

A large portion of government assistance has gone towards bringing people to Australia from south Asian countries, including Bangladesh, India and Nepal, along with other countries like Lebanon, South Africa, the Philippines, Thailand and Peru.

Well over 60,000 people have undergone hotel quarantine since it was brought into place, and more Australians continue to return on repatriation flights from around the world.

COVID-19 testing is being ramped up in hotels

On Friday, outgoing Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said the risk profile from different countries around the world was also changing as the virus spread.

“The country risk profile is changing all the time. We’re seeing imported cases in hotel quarantine from a range of different countries now,” he said, announcing a beefed-up testing regimen for recently returned travellers in hotel quarantine.

Everybody in hotel quarantine will be tested near the start and end of their stay in quarantine, with those who do not comply in Victoria facing an extra 10 days in quarantine.

It comes after revelations 30 per cent of people who had been through hotel quarantine in Victoria had declined to be tested.

“There’s a variety of reasons why people didn’t want to be tested, including children, parents not wanting a swab being given to children,” Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth said.

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