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Scott Morrison fends off calls to reopen border as medical association urges ‘plan for 2022’

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, is fending off mounting pressure to reopen Australia’s borders sooner than next year, as the peak medical association joins calls for a “plan for 2022” that would see the country reopen to the rest of the world.

Following last week’s budget, which assumed that Australia’s borders would remain closed until mid next year, the Morrison government has faced a barrage of calls from business, the university sector and from within Coalition ranks for a swifter reopening of borders and a bolstering of quarantine facilities.

Morrison has also come under pressure over the vaccination rollout, conceding on Tuesday that the government needed to “step up” its efforts to vaccinate people living in disability care, after it was revealed that just 4% of these people had received a jab.

Amid growing pressure over Australia’s “fortress” position, the Australian Medical Association joined calls for the government to commit to a clear timetable for reopening borders, saying at some point closures “will not be possible to justify”.

The head of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, said it was time for the prime minister to put a date on reopening international borders and to accept that the health system would need to cope with new variants of the virus.

“First, you’ve got to put in place a system that is able to quarantine the highest risk individuals coming into the country, and you need to make sure you’ve got a health system that’s ready to cope,” Khorshid told Guardian Australia.

“And then you’ve just got to do it. Give people a date, so that way they also go out and get vaccinated,” he said.

“Because a certain number of people will go and get the vaccine because it’s the right thing to do, a certain number of people will get the vaccine because they really are worried about getting sick with Covid, but there’s an awful lot of people who don’t feel threatened by the virus who don’t see any direct benefit from a vaccine. So they ask ‘why should I get it done?’

“Well, we’ve got to answer those questions so that every person can really clearly see the benefits, and weigh them up against the risks, which of course, are negligible. And therefore I think setting a date for travel would be helpful.”

While acknowledging border closures had been politically popular, Khorshid said he believed a “plan for 2022” was needed by September this year.

“Whether that be a plan for opening up early in 2022, or gradual staged opening throughout next year. But I’d be very disappointed if we are still in this situation in June next year.”

The AMA has also said the government needed to reduce its reliance on hotel quarantine, which was an emergency measure, and transition to new arrangements.

The AMA’s comments came after the chief executive of Virgin Australia, Jayne Hrdlicka said Australia’s borders should reopen sooner than the middle of next year even though “some people may die” – remarks that prompted a swift rebuke from Morrison.

“I understand that everyone is keen to get back to a time that we once knew. The reality is we’re living this year in a pandemic that’s worse than last year,” Morrison said.

“You know, 910 Australians have lost their lives, and every single one of those lives was a terrible tragedy … and so no, I find it very difficult to have any truck with what was said there.”

The chief executive of Flight Centre, Graham Turner, backed Hrdlicka’s comments, saying her remarks “made sense”, even if they were unpalatable.

“It’s just the correlation probably doesn’t sound that good … But her basic thing was that it’s like the flu. A couple of thousand people die every year from the flu here. It’s going to be the same with the coronavirus, even when people are vaccinated widely,” Turner told 3AW radio.

“I’m not saying rush it, but this disease is going to be endemic in our society and we’re going to have to live with it, and if you’re vaccinated you’ll be OK,” he said.

The Council of Small Business Organisations Australia also warned that the current border closures were unsustainable, joining a chorus of industry leaders calling for a loosening of Australia’s hard border closure before the mid-2022 timeframe outlined in the federal budget.

Peter Strong, the chief executive of Cosboa, warned hospitality, retail and agriculture businesses reliant on foreign workers could collapse if Australia’s international borders only begin to reopen in the second half of 2022.

He said many small businesses were already operating below capacity as a result of labour shortages stemming from the absence of skilled migration pathways as well as a lack of backpackers and international students.

“What I’m hearing from members is deep concern about labour shortages, they’re desperate for certainty about when they can expect more workers, so they can plan how they’ll reopen fully, how they can expand,” he said.

Strong singled out cafes, restaurants, family farms and software startups as being particularly restricted by labour shortages.

“They’re starting to cannibalise each other for staff … They’re worried too because customers are complaining about bad, slow service, and we’re just not sure how far we can last before businesses start to fall over,” Strong said.

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the government’s rhetoric on borders was based on politics, as he called for a focus on fixing the quarantine system and the vaccination rollout.

“Well, we should be keeping people safe, taking the health advice. We should fix quarantine and fix the rollout of the vaccine. But what this government has done is made a political decision,” Albanese said.

“That’s what’s in the budget. What’s in the budget is the borders will be open after the next election,” he said.

Source: The Guardian