The Politics    Friday, April 16, 2021

Stretching the point

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison joining in with daily stretching exercises at a Fortescue Metals Group ore-processing plant in Western Australia this morning. Image via Twitter

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest join in with stretching exercises at a Fortescue Metals Group ore-processing plant in Western Australia, to a soundtrack of Jimmy Barnes’s “Working Class Man”. Image via Twitter

The idea that Australians could be travelling overseas this year is quite a stretch

The Morrison government has offered up yet another distraction from its bungled vaccine rollout, hinting at the possibility of overseas travel before the population is fully vaccinated. The prime minister – currently in Western Australia visiting metal processing plants and partaking in made-for-photo-op workplace stretches (set to Jimmy Barnes’s “Working Class Man”, no less) – told a Perth community forum last night that his “first goal” in reopening borders would be allowing vaccinated Australians to leave and return home without going into hotel quarantine, instead quarantining at home or “under some other less-stringent environment”. Never mind that Health Minister Greg Hunt said earlier this week that international travel could remain off limits even once the entire population is vaccinated. Government ministers have been asked about the PM’s suggestion all day, with many enthusiastically talking it up, but the announcement is – like the workplace exercises, like many of the things that come out of Morrison’s mouth these days – quite a stretch. At the rate the rollout is going, the word “vaccinated” isn’t going to apply to many Australians for some time. (The PM yesterday labelled criticism of the program “a bit of a pile-on”.) Others have noted that reopening travel will greatly depend on whether our vaccines reduce transmission of the virus – which is far from confirmed – and on the status of any variants. 

Government ministers enjoyed having some good news to talk about today, even if we are no closer to having any idea when we will all be vaccinated, with the timeline dumped. Defence Minister Peter Dutton told Today that the move to home quarantine should happen “as quickly as we can”, while over on 2GB radio Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that it was “good to be optimistic about this”. Others have been more subdued with their enthusiasm. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News that allowing travel would depend on whether the vaccines – which prevent people from getting sick from the virus – are also successful in preventing them from passing it on, while Treasurer Josh Frydenberg insisted the plan would have to be based on medical advice, saying the PM was “presenting the opportunity that arrives when we do roll out that vaccine more broadly”. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian backed the idea of quarantine-free travel, but said it would depend on getting the vaccine rolled out to most people, not just the travellers (“Look, I think that is a great suggestion, but it does rely on us having the vaccinated population,” she told Today). So that means 2022 at the very earliest, then.

Morrison, whose government deserves some credit for keeping COVID-19 out by shutting Australia’s borders back in March 2020, now seems desperate to reopen them, or at least to keep alive people’s hopes of leaving the country this year. Qantas remains optimistic, and is reportedly sticking to its plan to restart international travel in October, “getting [its] aircraft and people ready”. But there won’t be many of us able to fly in October. Australia isn’t expected to start receiving its all-important second Pfizer order until that quarter of the year, and who knows when even the first order will have arrived in full. Overseas travel is not, as headlines are claiming, “back on the agenda” for Australians, and Morrison’s false hope is not helping anyone.

The prime minister is known for his willingness to stretch the truth, and he’s made plenty of big stretches over the course of the past 12 months – from saying that Australia would be at the “front of the queue” for vaccines to insisting that his government would administer 4 million doses by the end of March. He continued to stretch the truth this week, RMIT ABC Fact Check has found, with his boasts that Australia is outperforming Germany, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan at a similar stage in their vaccination rollouts. Last night Morrison, aided by many in the media, teased Australians with the promise of international travel, with being reunited with loved ones or being able to attend funerals overseas. There are plenty of practical things the federal government could have done to speed up the possibility of Australians being allowed out (or being allowed back in for that matter), from acquiring more vaccines to implementing suggestions for specialised federal quarantine facilities. But until Australia gets its hands (physically) on some more vaccines, the promise of overseas travel for vaccinated Australians will not take us anywhere.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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