COVID-19 vaccine in Australia and international travel on national cabinet agenda

Australians seeking to return from overseas now face mandatory tests and masks on flights, as the nation seeks to keep new strains of COVID-19 at bay.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state and territory leaders will be briefed by experts at a virtual national cabinet meeting on the new travel protocols which come into play on Friday.

Health Minister Greg Hunt says the requirement for passengers to have a COVID test within 72 hours of their scheduled departure to Australia, and masks on all international flights, would be challenging for many.

But he said 17,500 deaths in the past day and four million cases over the past week overseas showed the need to be vigilant and the “agonising challenge” the pandemic still presents.

Passengers will need to display evidence of a negative test result.

As well, members of a travelling party who have been household contacts of a traveller who has a positive test result won’t be allowed to travel to Australia until all members of the party are no longer infectious.

Mr Morrison will dial in to national cabinet from Brisbane after spending the week touring regional Queensland talking up the economic recovery.

Medical advisers will update the leaders on how new variants of coronavirus are being managed.

The gathering will be briefed on vaccine program planning, as the Therapeutic Goods Administration finalises advice on the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs, which will be the mainstay of this year’s program.

“The latest advice that we have and I spoke with Pfizer (on Wednesday) is that we are still on track for first vaccines to be received in February the final date hasn’t been confirmed,” Mr Hunt said.

Queensland will put its case for using mining accommodation as an alternative to hotel quarantine.

But Mr Morrison, having spoken with political leaders in central Queensland, is cool on the proposal.

It is expected the leaders will discuss progress on arrangements to get more seasonal workers into farming regions desperate to get crops to market.

Federal and state farming groups say the stalemate over getting more foreign workers into the country must end.

In August, the federal government gave the green light to a COVID-safe restart of the Pacific workers and seasonal worker visa programs, putting the onus on states and territories to submit a plan that satisfied public health protocols.

But despite all jurisdictions submitting satisfactory plans, except Victoria, only about 1500 international workers have arrived, well short of the 26,000 expected to be needed by March.

Queensland is the only state to deploy on-farm quarantining, which has the backing of the sector.

“While our leaders squabble over who should bear the cost, farmers are bleeding,” NFF CEO Tony Mahar said.

“Already fruit and vegetable growers alone, report to have lost $38 million worth of crop due to labour shortages.”

Mr Mahar said all Australians would feel the pain, in terms of higher supermarket prices, if no solution could be found.

NSW has recorded a fourth day in a row without a local case, while it’s been 15 days since one in Victoria and 10 days for Queensland.

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