A Singapore Airlines Airbus A350-900 ferried the first 142,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to Sydney on Monday. The vaccine originated in Belgium and came to Australia via Singapore. With everyone in Australia is eligible for a free vaccination, 142,000 doses won’t go far. But by late March, two million doses should have landed and thereafter will arrive at a rate of one million doses a week.
COVID-19 vaccination doesn’t mean travel restrictions will ease anytime soon
By Easter, the Australian Government expects four million of Australia’s 26 million residents to have received the vaccination under the multi-billion dollar program. By the end of 2021, mass immunization is on the cards.
Despite the vaccination program getting underway, there’s no widespread belief Australia will relax its international border and travel restrictions anytime soon.
The current ban on Australian’s leaving the country expires on March 17. However, an announcement of an extension through to June is imminent. The Australian Government’s reluctance to unwind border restrictions is evidenced by their snap 72-hour freeze on quarantine-free arrivals from New Zealand this week.
There’s also no move to relax the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for international arrivals. Instead, the Australian Government is looking to expand the existing quarantine infrastructure. Besides considering a proposal to build a residential quarantine facility at Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport, a similar idea is now floated for Melbourne’s Avalon Airport.
Despite the vaccine, still hard to get a flight home
Meanwhile, it is getting harder to secure a seat on a flight to Australia. A year after the first COVID-19 outbreaks, tens of thousands of Australian citizens and permanent residents remain stranded overseas. Even if you can get a seat on a flight, there is no guarantee that the flight will operate.
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International passenger flights to Melbourne, usually Australia’s second-biggest international hub, are suspended once again. That’s because of a small number of COVID-19 cases leaking out from a quarantine hotel. Passengers booked on international services into Melbourne this week once again saw themselves bumped off flights.
Because of tough quarantine restrictions imposed in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific is abandoning its services to Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth this month. Flights to Sydney will continue to run. That takes more seats out of the system.
Another week, another chaotic internal border mess
Most Australian states have also closed their doors to travelers from Melbourne this week in light of the recent outbreak. As a result, on Monday, Qantas canceled 39% of their flights in and out of Melbourne. Jetstar canceled 41% of Monday’s Melbourne flights, Virgin Australia canceled 27% of their flights, and QantasLink axed 46% of their flights.
In slightly better news, Western Australia relaxed its border restrictions for interstate travelers overnight. Except for Victorians, interstate visitors to Western Australia will no longer have to go into quarantine upon arrival there. That should rev up domestic flights to Perth. Unfortunately, Western Australia runs hot and cold with its border policies, and today’s entry rule may not last the week.
With multiple COVID-19 related scenarios playing out in Australia and airlines servicing the market feeling the pinch, a vaccine seems like a silver bullet. But even with the first vaccines arriving yesterday and mass immunization flagged by the end of 2021, there’s no immediate relief on the horizon for travelers wanting to head to, or already in Australia.