© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a protective face mask walks along a deserted city bridge during morning commute hours on the first day of closure as the state of Victoria seeks to stem the spread of a coronavirus outbreak ( COVID-19) in Melbourne.
By Renju Jose and Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) -Sydney will allow fully vaccinated foreign travelers to enter from November 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 the citizens.
The move comes as the state of New South Wales is expected to hit an 80% first-dose vaccination rate on Saturday, well ahead of the rest of Australia, and pushes the expected return from overseas travel to several weeks. .
“We need to unite with the world. We cannot live here in the hermit kingdom. We have to open up,” said New South Wales Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet.
Australia closed its borders in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing entry almost exclusively only to citizens and permanent residents who currently must undergo two weeks of hotel quarantine on their own.
In addition to ditching plans for home quarantine, which was expected to replace hotel stays, Perrottet said New South Wales would welcome all overseas arrivals. But it was quickly rebuffed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said the government would stick with plans to first open the border to citizens and permanent residents.
“It comes first to Australian residents and citizens. The Commonwealth government has not made any decision to allow other visa holders … to enter Australia under these agreements,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney.
He said parents of Australian citizens living abroad may be allowed to travel to the country.
Australians have not been able to travel internationally for more than 18 months without a government exemption, and thousands of citizens and permanent residents in other countries have been unable to return after Canberra imposed a strict limit 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 advance the restart of international flights from Sydney to London and Los Angeles by two weeks until November 1 and would consider moving forward some other destinations that were expected to begin in December.
Major airlines such as Singapore Airlines (OTC :), Emirates, and United Airlines have continued to fly to Sydney during the pandemic, but due to strict passenger limits, most of their revenue comes from cargo. The announcement should allow them to start selling more seats on those flights and potentially add more services.
Meanwhile, New South Wales reported 399 COVID-19 cases on Friday, well below the state’s pandemic high of 1,599 in early September.
The neighboring state of Victoria, where vaccination rates are lower, reported 2,179 new locally acquired cases, up from a record 2,297 the day before.
Canberra, the national capital, came out of its more than two-month closure on Friday, allowing cafes, pubs and gyms to reopen with strict social distancing rules.
The country’s overall coronavirus numbers remain relatively low, with some 139,000 cases and 1,506 deaths.