“We need to rejoin the world,” New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said Friday. “We can’t live here in a hermit kingdom.”
More than 300,000 people have endured the vaunted — and sometimes reviled — hotel quarantine system, with most serving their mandatory two-week stints in Sydney.
Unvaccinated travelers will still need to enter hotel quarantine, but their numbers will be capped at just 30 per day, Perrottet said. Starting Nov. 1, fully vaccinated travelers will need to provide only a negative PCR test before flying to Sydney.
Although Perrottet suggested that international tourists soon could return to the state, Prime Minister Scott Morrison later clarified that only Australian citizens, residents and their families — including their parents — would initially be allowed into the country.
Skilled migrants and students would be next in line.
“We are not opening up to everyone coming back to Australia at the moment,” Morrison said. He did not say when tourists would be allowed in but has said previously that it will be early next year.
Friday’s announcement nonetheless blows a hole in the ramparts surrounding “Fortress Australia” and forces other parts of the country to figure out how to cope.
Officials in neighboring state of Victoria appeared caught off guard by the news, which came just as they announced they were dropping quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers from New South Wales next week. Combined, the two changes appeared to mean a vaccinated overseas traveler could fly to Sydney and then to Melbourne — the current center of Australia’s outbreak — without quarantining.
Yet, Victoria is one of three states building large quarantine facilities. The two others, Queensland and Western Australia, have said they intend to stay closed until next year, and Perrottet acknowledged that it will soon be easier for Sydneysiders to fly overseas than to certain parts of Australia.
“I think people in New South Wales will be flying to Bali before Broome,” he said, naming a tourist town in Western Australia, where there are few coronavirus cases and people from New South Wales are not allowed.
New South Wales became the first state with widespread infections to ease its lockdown on Monday when it reopened pubs, restaurants, gyms, barbershops, hair salons, movie theaters and other businesses to vaccinated customers, albeit at reduced capacity. Restrictions are set to ease further next week.
On Friday, the Australian capital, Canberra, also lifted its lockdown after inoculating 70 percent of its eligible population.
Even in Victoria, which is not due to ease its lockdown until late October, life is starting to look different for those who are vaccinated. On Thursday, the state voted to bar unvaccinated lawmakers from Parliament, and essential workers must have had at least one shot.
Friday’s news brought tears to the eyes of Natasha Malik, an Australian who moved to Dubai four years ago with her husband. The couple had since separated, leaving Malik feeling trapped and eager to return to Sydney. But the 33-year-old said she didn’t have the roughly $6,500 required for a ticket and hotel quarantine.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” she said in an interview. “This is such a relief. I can finally go back home.”
Malik said she expected the announcement to lead to lower airfares. She planned to return to Sydney in December or January, before resuming her studies to become a midwife.
For those returning to Australia to see ailing loved ones, hotel quarantine has often meant missing precious last moments. Phil Davis, an Australian businessman in Nepal, said the changes reassured him he could make it home in time to see his 89-year-old mother if she takes a turn for the worse.
“It is great news,” he said in a Facebook message. “They have done the right thing.”
So many Australians have passed through hotel quarantine that Facebook groups devoted to the experience have tens of thousands of members. Normally filled with complaints over food or tips on how to stay sane, the groups lit up on Friday with news of the announcement. Many in the groups hoped other states would join New South Wales in scrapping hotel quarantine for the vaccinated.
“C’mon Perth,” one person said, referring to the capital of Western Australia. “I want to come home.”
Among the first beneficiaries of Friday’s announcement could be the prime minister, who confirmed that he would attend the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in coming weeks. Morrison had previously complained that the coronavirus protocols would make this his fourth stint in quarantine, drawing criticism from Prince Charles and even Queen Elizabeth II, who was unhappy that relatively few world leaders had committed to attending the event.
“It’s another trip overseas,” Morrison had said, “and I’ve spent a lot of time in quarantine.”