Having endured one of the world’s longest Covid-19 lockdowns, Melburnians are preparing for a festive season of barbecues, beaches and sports relatively free of the social-distancing restrictions imposed in the US and Europe.
Restaurants, pubs and cafés expect a busy Christmas after Australia’s second most populous city emerged from a strict 112-day-long lockdown in late October. Victoria’s state government recently dropped requirements to wear face masks when dining, removed a ban on dancing and is allowing up to 30 people to visit private homes.
In a symbolic moment for a nation hooked on cricket, the Boxing Day Test match between India and Australia will welcome 30,000 spectators — the first time fans will be allowed to attend the Melbourne Cricket Ground since the virus began spreading rapidly in March.
“It’s been a challenge this year but we are back doing better than we were before Covid-19,” said Hasheam Tayeh, co-founder of the Consortium Food Group, as he made preparations to host a Christmas party to thank staff at his Burgertory restaurant chain. “There has been a big boost in morale since we could take our masks off.”
It is a similar story across most Australian states and in New Zealand, where local transmission of Covid-19 has been eliminated outside of the mandatory 14-day hotel quarantining for international arrivals.
However, an outbreak in Sydney with 91 cases reported over the past week has highlighted the highly infectious nature of the virus and its threat to Christmas.
The Northern Beaches suburb of Sydney has been placed into a temporary lockdown and several states have reimposed travel restrictions on residents from the area. Authorities on Tuesday reported 8 new cases, a quarter of Sunday’s numbers, providing some hope that outbreak could be brought under control and a full lockdown in Australia’s second-largest city avoided.
The zero-tolerance approach in Australia and its success in suppressing the virus stands in stark contrast with Europe and the US, where authorities are struggling to cope with a second deadly wave of infections.
“I’ve never been more proud of my country than I am now,” said Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, last week. “So we are going to have Christmas this year in Australia like few other countries.”
Australia’s decision to close its international borders early and impose strict lockdowns to suppress Covid-19 has been praised by health experts for limiting deaths to 908, a fraction of the number in the UK, US or even Belgium.
Many economists have also praised this hardline approach, noting that suppression of the virus boosted consumer confidence and enabled a faster recovery than other nations, which were forced to introduce rolling lockdowns owing to repeated outbreaks.
“Australia acted early and decisively and wasn’t in denial about the pandemic like a number of other countries,” said Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist at La Trobe University.
“This has allowed, to a significant degree, things to return to a place approximating where they were before the pandemic . . . which has put it in the solid position that it is in now to focus on the economic recovery.”
However, not all Australian families will be reunited this Christmas owing to the government’s imposition of strict flight caps to relieve pressure on its hotel quarantine system — a crucial part of the nation’s defence against Covid-19.
When a second wave of Covid-19 struck Melbourne in July, the government capped the number of international arrivals at 4,000 a week. It was recently increased to 7,000 but remains far below what is needed to clear a backlog of expatriates trying to return home.
“Airlines were forced to cancel thousands of tickets and this has created massive stress for those travellers struggling to rebook and left people facing huge travel costs,” said Jennie Bardsley, director at British Travel, a Perth-based travel agent.
Support groups on Facebook detail the hardships facing many Australians stranded overseas, some of whom have had airline tickets cancelled several times and been made homeless when they cancelled their rental leases in the hopes of returning home.
The scarcity of flights into Australia has pushed prices sky high while hotel quarantine costs A$3,000 (US$2,300) for an adult and A$5,000 for a family of four, which many cannot afford.
Jess Evelyn, a Sydneysider who has lived in London for two and a half years, said she was anxious about booking a flight and then being bumped, leaving her stuck in Britain jobless and without accommodation. Despite facing mental health challenges during the Covid-19 lockdown in London, she has decided to stay until April.
“You can’t quit your job, replace yourself on the lease and pack up your life unless you know for sure you’ll be able to get home. Too many people are already stranded,” she said.
The government has said that it first warned Australians overseas to return home in March, and since then 430,000 people have returned. It has facilitated 79 repatriation flights, enabling 11,000 Australians to return, according to a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson. The spokesperson noted that the department’s highest priority was “helping vulnerable Australians overseas”.
But Australia’s federal and state governments have no plans to remove the flight caps or mandatory quarantine in the near term as Covid-19 continues to spread across the world. Authorities believe the latest outbreak in Sydney is probably linked to breaches in hotel quarantine or exemptions provided to international air crew or other travellers.
“The international world remains a challenging and dangerous environment and Australia won’t be fully safe until the international community is safe,” said Greg Hunt, Australia’s health minister.
“The risks abroad are enormous and if we don’t maintain these important protections, then we won’t be protecting Australians.”
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