Overseas vigilance essential with any travel bubble

Saturday marks 12 months since Australia closed its borders to the rest of the world in response to an exponential rise in cases of COVID-19 and warnings that our intensive care units would be overwhelmed by Anzac Day.

It was the right call. The decision stopped many cases of COVID-19 getting into the local community and Australia is now in an enviable position, with a growing economy and very little COVID-19 outside of hotel quarantine.

Singapore is a good candidate to include in a travel bubble.Credit:Bianca De Marchi

Now that vaccines are being rolled out, reducing the danger of COVID-19, it is prudent for the government to consider how it might start to cautiously reopen those borders to allow Australians out and other people in. The proposal to create a travel bubble with Singapore that could also include New Zealand, allowing people to travel between the countries without having to quarantine, is a good first step – for social and economic reasons.

The border closure not only stopped us taking international holidays, it also separated families, often at times of need, and made it incredibly difficult for Australians stranded overseas to come home. There are still 40,000 Australians waiting for a seat on a plane and a place in hotel quarantine.

Before the pandemic, international travel for education, business and tourism contributed $45 billion a year to our economy. The border closure has halved that amount, putting significant financial pressure on businesses in these industries. Universities alone have had to shed more than 17,000 jobs in the past year as international student numbers fell by 9 per cent and they lost $1.8 billion in revenue.

This proposal could allow those students to return, by letting them quarantine in Singapore en route to Australia. It would also draw Singaporeans to Australia for holidays, providing a much-needed boost to the tourism industry.

A holiday in Singapore could be possible.Credit:Louie Douvis

Any bubble means we are putting a lot of trust in overseas authorities to keep us safe.

But as important as it is to move out of survival mode, the federal government’s vaccine rollout is nowhere near complete and as a community we are still at risk. We must be careful that any travel bubble does not squander what we have worked so hard to achieve, nor the protection we have afforded our most vulnerable through those efforts.

The states have so far carried the heaviest logistical burden when it comes to protecting Australians, implementing restrictions, managing quarantine and carrying out contact tracing. Mostly, they have earned our trust in doing so. Now all eyes turn to the federal government as it oversees the vaccine rollout, with the help of the states, and manages the reopening of our borders.

The government must show us that any countries included in a travel bubble are just as meticulous as our state governments in detecting and containing COVID-19. The evidence suggests New Zealand and Singapore are both good bubble candidates. They have quickly got on top of any outbreaks and have largely eradicated COVID-19 from their communities. And Singapore has done a far better job than Australia in rolling out vaccines – so far 6.7 per cent of its population has received at least one jab, compared to 0.4 per cent for Australia.

Singapore has its own incentives to make this work: it is Australia’s sixth-largest trading partner, it is home to a large diaspora of Australians and more than 70,000 Singaporeans live here. A bubble with Australia would benefit Singaporean residents and citizens and help Singapore resurrect its reputation as an international travel hub.

While Qantas is hoping broader international travel will be on the cards again come October, health officials are more cautious. It’s unlikely we’ll be jetting off to Europe any time soon. So bringing Singapore into a travel bubble may provide a welcome taste of freedom for those desperate to escape Australia, with seemingly very little risk.

Any bubble, however, means we are putting a lot of trust in overseas authorities to keep us safe – authorities that do not answer to Australian voters. The federal government must keep a close eye on what is happening in those countries, to ensure we are not letting COVID-19 into Australia through the backdoor. Vigilance is essential. We’ve come too far to burst our bubble now.

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