Experts are warning that hotel quarantine arrangements may need to be in place for years regardless of vaccines.
The Australian federal government is considering granting international travellers and returning Australians who can prove they have been vaccinated against Covid-19 special entry into the country.
However, World Health Organization (WHO) experts say people who have been vaccinated would still need to take the same precautions as now – including quarantine arrangements – until a level of herd immunity is achieved.
The national vaccination programme is planned to kick off in March and have population-wide coverage by the end of October.
Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorshid said Australia’s quarantine arrangements would remain “until we have at least all of our vulnerable population vaccinated and possibly the entire population”.
He said governments would have to decide what level of immunity was needed before they reopened the international borders but with the virus expected to become endemic – that is, circulating all the time – Australia has to learn to live with it.
“At some point you’ve got to open up the borders,” Khorshid said. “But these vaccines are not silver bullets and we’re going to see quarantine stay in place for many months to come.”
The federal Department of Health said mandatory hotel quarantine was key to keeping the virus out and was still considered the best way to deal with people arriving from overseas.
The federal government determines the numbers of people who are allowed into Australia, but the state governments are in charge of health-related quarantine procedures.
A spokesman for the Victoria state health department said they believe hotel quarantine would continue to limit the possibility of the virus spreading there.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was not comfortable with having people coming from overseas without going through the 14-day quarantine system.
“Until everybody is vaccinated, we have to keep all of our settings, including our quarantine system,” she said.
Adam Kamradt-Scott, a University of Sydney expert in the spread and control of infectious diseases, said Australia would likely need some type of hotel quarantine system for years to come.
He said danger spots would remain overseas as wealthy countries such as Australia bought up limited supplies of vaccines, leaving poorer nations without any access.
Also, the vaccines may not deliver ongoing immunity, meaning people would need regular doses, similar to the flu shot, making the campaign to provide worldwide coverage even harder.
“I expect we are going to be living with the virus at least for the next five years, and it may never go away,” Kamradt-Scott said.
“I suspect that we are going to have to have some form of hotel quarantine system in place for probably at least the next two years, if not longer. We may then also have to have restrictions on Australians going overseas and coming back.”
A Qantas spokesman said hotel quarantine arrangements would be required until there was an effective vaccine rollout. “Which is why we don’t expect our international flights to resume in any real size until the second half of 2021.”