Scott Morrison – Vaccine passport plan for international students in Australia ‘premature’, health expert says | Australia news
An infectious diseases expert has said plans to bring international students back to Australia with vaccine passports are “premature” and unlikely to start this year.
On Monday the education minister, Alan Tudge, said that “digital vaccine certificates” could allow international students to return to Australia without the need for hotel quarantine.
The federal government planned to include vaccination status as part of an upcoming digital incoming passenger card, and Tudge told the Sydney Morning Herald that, depending on vaccine effectiveness and distribution around the world, this had “the potential to be able to bring in more international students”.
But Dr Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases specialist from the Australian National University, said it was still unclear how long vaccine immunity lasted and whether it stopped transmission.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, also told reporters on Monday morning that linking the vaccination passport to the return of international students was “somewhat premature”.
“It is not a silver bullet because there are still limitations to what these vaccines can do,” he said.
Senanayake told Guardian Australia that it was “likely” that three vaccines – Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna – would reduce transmission, but it would take more than six months for that to be known.
“We also don’t know the duration of immunity we get from these vaccines,” he said. “Hopefully for one or two years we might have good immunity, but you never know.
“At this stage, we can’t say if a vaccine passport means an immunity passport.”
Senanayake said that a vaccination on its own would not be enough for students to bypass quarantine entirely when they arrive in Australia – but it could be combined with alternative solutions such as custom accommodation or shortened isolation times.
“I still see the need for a quarantine and testing program, even if you have received the vaccine, but perhaps it could be shortened for people from low-risk countries like Taiwan and New Zealand,” he said.
“Ways around it could be, you have your vaccine passport and if you are from a low-risk country you go into quarantine for 14 days or seven days, a shorter time, and you get regular testing. Or for those people the quarantine could be performed in a university-type accommodation, instead of going to hotels, that could be considered.”
Last week, Tudge also told the Australian that it would be “very difficult” for significant numbers of students to return to Australia in 2021.
Asked about the potential to use digital vaccination cards to bring students back, Morrison said: “It’s just too early to say. I don’t want to create any false expectations or false hopes there.”
The prime minister also said the government’s priority was to bring Australians back, and said hotel quarantine was the best system for quarantine, rather than special accommodation set-ups.
“If you want to get at least 5,000 people into Australia a week, which
is what we had been achieving, then the idea that you can build some sort of national set of camps that can accommodate that, that’s not a practical way to achieve it,” he said.
“The advice was, and I think it was right and it was agreed to by the states and territories, that the best and most effective and safest way to do that is to take advantage of the accommodation capacity that sits through the hotel quarantine system that has been used.”
Senanayake said the picture would be clearer after a year.
“Maybe when the vaccines have been rolled out, and six months after in Australia, we are heading to close to a year of immunisation, and we see that people have got durable immunity and there is reduced transmission, that is a different story. Right now, it is a bit premature.”
The secretary of the Department of Health, Brendan Murphy, also said it would take time to know how effective the various vaccines were.
“That is the data we have to get from the experience of the world’s vaccinations over the next – what we call the phase 4 data, the real time experience,” he told reporters.
“It may be that people will need additional doses of vaccines, possibly annually. These things are completely unknown at the moment.
“I have said to the prime minister, I think about a year ago, I wouldn’t want to predict more than three months ahead with this pandemic. That still stands.”