No international travel in 2021 despite vaccine rollout
Overseas travel will be off the menu for Australians this year, with tough border restrictions to remain in place even as a COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out, Australia's top health chief has predicted.
Secretary of the Department of Health, Professor Brendan Murphy, who lead Australia's coronavirus response in his former role as chief health officer, said it was unlikely the federal government would open the nation's international borders this year.
"I think the answer is probably no. I think we will go most of this year with substantial border restrictions, even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated, we don't know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus and it is likely that quarantine will continue for some time," Prof Murphy told ABC TV.
"One of the things about this virus is that the rule book has been made up as we go. I was very careful early on, I remember saying this to the Prime Minister, I don't want to predict more than two or three months ahead.
"The world is changing so at the moment we have this light at the end of the tunnel, the vaccine, so we will go as safely and as fast as we can to get the population vaccinated and we will look at what happens then."
It comes as Australia approaches the one year anniversary of closing its international borders - a call that was made by Prof Murphy.
"That was probably the most momentous day of my time. It was February 1,'' he said.
"I remember, I was actually in Melbourne on that day visiting family. And I looked at the news, saw the situation in China and phoned Minister Hunt and phoned the Prime Minister and had a series of meetings that day. And the borders were closed at 9pm that night. Which is an extraordinary thing. And I think that our border measures, in retrospect, have been one of the reasons why we have never really had significant community transmission, other than that second wave in Victoria."
NSW COVID TESTING FEARS AS STATE RECORDS NO NEW LOCAL CASES
NSW has recorded no new locally transmitted coronavirus cases, but health authorities are worried about a drop in testing numbers.
The number of people who got tested for COVID-19 was the lowest since mid-December when Sydney's northern beaches cluster broke out.
There were eight cases confirmed in overseas travellers who are in hotel quarantine in the 24-hour period ending at 8pm on Sunday, according to NSW Health.
NSW Health also confirmed seven cases reported over the weekend were believed to be linked to the Berala cluster in Sydney's west.
"Whole genome sequencing suggests the seven cases reported over the weekend are linked to the Berala cluster," deputy chief health officer Jeremy McAnulty said in a video statement.
"Investigations and contact tracing are underway to establish the route of acquisition. While an epidemiological link has not yet been made, there is the possibility that others in the community may have the virus."
Medics are treating 97 patients sickened with COVID-19, one of whom is in intensive care, Dr McAnulty said.
The new figures come as the rates of testing plummet, with only 8,773 people submitting to the nose-and-throat swab in the 24 hours leading up to 8pm Sunday.
"The drop in daily testing numbers is of concern," Dr McAnulty said.
NSW reached a peak of over 69,000 tests on Christmas Eve, and since then the state has been nowhere near that record.
The last time NSW recorded less than 10,000 tests was on December 18, the day after the northern beaches outbreak was publicly confirmed.
Only 7,531 tests were recorded on December 18, before daily testing rates began increasing rapidly as the scale of the Sydney outbreak became clear.
A record was set on December 21 with 38,578 tests, and that record was broken three times over the next four days.
In total, more than 300,000 people were tested in NSW in just six days around Christmas.
Earlier on Monday, Victoria announced eased travel restrictions for certain parts of Sydney.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said 25 out of 35 local government areas in Sydney would be moved off the list of so-called red zones.
That means residents from those areas can travel to Victoria with a permit, although it will still be necessary to have a test upon arrival and self-isolate until a negative result is received.
The areas of Sydney that remain red zones for Victorian travel purposes are Blacktown City, Canada Bay, Burwood, Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland, Fairfield City, Inner West, Liverpool City, Parramatta City and Strathfield.
VICTORIA RECORDS ZERO NEW LOCAL CASES
Victoria has recorded zero new locally acquired cases of coronavirus on Monday as more than 13,000 people were tested in the past 24 hours.
But the Department of Health and Human Services revealed four new infections in returned overseas travellers in hotel quarantine.
There are 33 active cases of COVID-19 across the state. There were 13,973 tests undertaken in the past 24 hours.
It comes as two hotel quarantine workers who returned initial weak positive test results were cleared of the virus.
Minister for Police Lisa Neville who is overseeing the hotel quarantine scheme revealed the development on Monday morning.
There are now more than 200 testing centres in operation in Victoria, including a new testing site near gate one at the MCG.
Almost 200,000 tests have been taken in Victoria since the start of the year.
PALASZCZUK HINTS AT EASING RESTRICTIONS
Queensland has recorded one new COVID-19 case, as Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was increasingly confident there was no community transmission in Brisbane.
The new case was acquired overseas and detected in a returned traveller from Brazil in hotel quarantine.
No locally acquired cases were recorded.
Greater Brisbane remains under a mask mandate and a number of restrictions are in place after a cluster emerged at a hotel quarantine facility.
Residents will have to continue to wear a mask in a number of indoor settings and gatherings remain restricted until at least 1am on Friday, but Ms Palaszczuk said the continued success of containing the outbreak means those restrictions may be eased.
"This is again really, really good news and, of course, we're waiting until Friday morning, 1:00am - if we keep this track happening now, it's more than likely that all of those restrictions will be removed by Friday," she told reporters on Monday morning.
"So a few more days to go, but thank you to everyone who's been doing the right thing especially with the mask-wearing and listening to what you can do and you can't do."
Queensland's chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, encouraged those in the Sunshine State to continue wearing masks even if the mandate is eased later in the week.
"I think it's a really good habit we should all get into that if you're in a crowded space, if you can't maintain social distancing, that you really wear a mask, particularly on public transport and if you're going into any shopping centres," she said on Monday morning.
"I think that will help us all as we go forward."
All guests who were quarantining at the Hotel Grand Chancellor, as well as staff and travellers previously released from the hotel were rushed back into isolation last week amid fears a highly contagious variant of the virus had spread through the facility.
Many have since been released.
The update comes after the state notched a two-week milestone on Saturday since the outbreak at the hotel begun, leaving Dr Young confident the cluster had been contained.
"We are now day 14 since I believe that incident happened at the Grand Chancellor that led to those infections in the hotel," she told reporters on Saturday.
"We've got the people who have been related to the cleaner and her partner. So we need to be very clear we don't mix those two groups together.
"But this is all very good news. It means that, I believe, due to very quick work by a lot of people and by the people of Greater Brisbane, that there is every chance we have contained this cluster."
PFIZER VACCINE 'PROCEEDING WITH CAUTION' AMID JAB DEATHS
Health Minister Greg Hunt says Australia is "proceeding with an abundance of caution" with the approval process of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine despite deaths in Norway.
It comes as Australia asked Pfizer for "additional information" about its vaccine after reports of about 30 deaths out of 40,000 elderly people in Norway.
Mr Hunt said the government had "immediately sought" more information from Pfizer and the Norway medical regulator regarding the "possible consequences of the Pfizer vaccine".
The Norway report does not suggest younger people under the age of 75 should not take the vaccine.
"We have been in contact with the Foreign Minister, and Marise Payne will task DFAT to seek advice directly from the Norwegian government," Mr Hunt said on Sunday.
"As further information is available, we'll share that with the Australian public."
Mr Hunt said at the same time there had been "heartening" news from the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, with "very positive results" from its review of 1.8 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine "in terms of both the safety and the efficacy".
He said people should be confident in the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and there was no evidence yet of a demonstrated link between the vaccine and the deaths.
"We don't know yet whether this is a function simply of age and people who are older and sadly facing the natural loss of their life, or whether there's any causation that hasn't been asserted as yet," he said.
"But we're proceeding with an abundance of caution."
Mr Hunt said Australia has no remaining COVID-19 hot spots left but warned the nation is "not out of the woods" yet.
Meanwhile the TGA said it doesn't expect the seniors' deaths will be "of significance" to the vast majority of people.
"The deaths were recorded among very frail patients, including some who were anticipated to only have weeks or months to live," the statement said.
"Norwegian authorities report that in recent years in aged care an average of around 400 deaths typically occur each week."
The TGA said the Norwegian deaths were "associated with fever, nausea and diarrhoea", which are "relatively common short-lived effects that a number of people experience after vaccination".
Originally published as Radical plan to keep UK strain out of Australia