“We are beginning to open up to New Zealand because of their similarly strong COVID outcomes and it may be possible to do likewise with other low risk nations,” he said.
“However, the prospects of opening up widespread travel with higher risk countries will remain very reliant on effective vaccination or other major breakthroughs in the management of COVID.”
With New South Wales and the Northern Territory to begin accepting New Zealand arrivals from October 16, Senator Birmingham confirmed the plan was to establish two-way travel with that country before the end of 2020.
“Work continues on how we can facilitate two-way COVID-safe travel between Australia and New Zealand, and I hope that we can see a reciprocal arrangement of quarantine-free travel with New Zealand by the year’s end,” Senator Birmingham said.
“Our arrangement with New Zealand will provide a blueprint to prove up the model of how we run safe corridors – green lanes of international visitors coming in and out of Australia – and whether this can be extended to other similarly low risk countries down the track.
“We will also work with health experts on how the rollout of any vaccine will facilitate further international travel.”
A decision by New Zealand on whether to open up and allow quarantine-free travel from Australia will likely be made after the October 17 national election.
To participate in the New Zealand travel bubble, Victoria would have to prove it doesn’t meet the federal government’s definition of a “hot spot”: a three-day rolling average of three locally acquired cases, per day, over three days.
States which have yet to agree to the hot spot definition – including Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia – would also have to sign up to the federal government’s position to participate in the trans-Tasman travel bubble.
Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack earlier this month speculated that South Australia would be “the next cab off the rank”.
While Senator Birmingham didn’t speculate what other countries could be added to the list next year, government sources confirmed nations with low numbers of COVID-19 cases such as Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Pacific Island nations would be considered.
The Australian government and health experts are growing increasingly concerned about the situation in Europe where a number of countries – including Spain, France and Germany – last week recorded their highest daily number of COVID-19 infections since widespread testing began.
There is also concern that the infections in the northern hemisphere will only get worse as it heads into winter.
Dr Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation, said “we are very concerned about the rise in cases in Europe as the region heads into winter”.
Dr Harris said COVID-19 was not necessarily showing a rise in cases during winter. But she said the colder months always see an increase in respiratory infections of all kinds which increased the numbers of people needing testing and put more pressure on the health system to cope with COVID-19.
“Colder weather leads to behaviours that favour transmission of a respiratory virus- people tend to crowd indoors to stay warm, more often in poorly ventilated spaces,” she said.
Dr Harris said Australia’s efforts in containing the virus through winter should be commended, including the Victorian second wave.
“But it is critical that everyone ‘celebrates’ those efforts by adopting the ‘new normal’- adhering to the measures we know work and doing it all,” she said.
“Governments need to provide leadership, clear communication and strong public health measures. Individuals need to maintain distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing when appropriate, improve ventilation and avoid the ‘three Cs’ -crowding, close contact, closed poorly ventilated spaces.”
In a report prepared for Health Minister Greg Hunt in April, Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel said viral respiratory infections generally worsen in winter because lower air temperature and humidity increase both the survival of the virus and its spread through the air.
“There are some concerns about the possible concurrence of a respiratory virus, such as influenza, spreading with COVID-19. Such cases may cause mixed infection patterns and increase the impact,” Dr Finkel’s report said.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.