Sydney will allow in fully vaccinated travellers from overseas from Nov. 1 without the need for quarantine, the country's most populous state said on Friday, although the easing of strict entry controls will initially benefit only citizens.
The move comes as New South Wales state is expected to reach an 80% first dose vaccination rate on Saturday, well ahead of the rest of Australia, and brings forward the expected return of overseas travel by several weeks.
"We need to rejoin the world. We can't live here in hermit kingdom. We've got to open up," New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said.
Australia closed its borders in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing entry almost exclusively to only citizens and permanent residents who are currently required to undergo two weeks of hotel quarantine at their own expense.
As well ditching plans for home quarantine, which had been expected to replace the hotel stays, Perrottet said New South Wales would welcome all overseas arrivals. But he was quickly overruled by Prime Minister Scott Morrison who said the government would stick with plans to first open the border to citizens and permanent residents.
"This is about Australian residents and citizens first. The Commonwealth government has made no decision to allow other visa holders ... to come into Australia under these arrangements," Morrison told reporters in Sydney.
He said the parents of Australians citizens living overseas may be permitted to travel to the country.
Australians have been unable to travel internationally for more than 18 months without a government waiver, and thousands of citizens and permanent residents in other countries have been unable to return after Canberra imposed a strict cap on arrivals to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Many of these are now expected to return via Sydney, even though some COVID-19 free states in Australia have closed their borders to New South Wales.
Qantas Airways said it would bring forward the restart of international flights from Sydney to London and Los Angeles by two weeks to Nov. 1 and would consider bringing forward some other destinations that had been expected to start in December.
Major airlines like Singapore Airlines, Emirates and United Airlines have continued to fly to Sydney throughout the pandemic but due to strict passenger caps, most of their revenue has been from cargo. The announcement should allow them to begin selling more seats on those flights and potentially adding more services.
New South Wales, meanwhile, reported 399 COVID-19 cases on Friday, well down from the state's pandemic high of 1,599 in early September.
Neighbouring Victoria state, where vaccination rates are lower, reported 2,179 new locally acquired cases, down from a record 2,297 a day earlier.
Canberra, the national capital, on Friday exited its more than two-month lockdown, allowing cafes, pubs and gyms to reopen with strict social distancing rules.
The country's overall coronavirus numbers are still relatively low, with some 139,000 cases and 1,506 deaths.
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