By Renju Jose and Melanie Burton
SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Australia will reduce the number of its citizens able to return from India and other red-zone countries to contain the risk of more virulent strains of COVID-19 spreading, the government said on Thursday as it announced changes in its vaccination program.
The restrictions will result in a 30% reduction in direct flights from India to Sydney and chartered flights that land in the Northern Territory.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking to reporters after a meeting of the National Cabinet, said that he would announce in the next 24 hours when the new restrictions would come into place.
“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic that is raging. And Australia has been successful throughout this pandemic … to have very effective border arrangements,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “There will continue to be the opportunity for those to return from places like India but in very controlled circumstances.”
Australia currently allows about 5,800 citizens or permanent residents to enter its territory each week before quarantining for two weeks in hotels. It is not clear how many of these are typically from India each week.
In a massive surge of new virus cases, India registered a record number of new daily infections for anywhere in the world on Thursday, eclipsing even the United States at the height of its pandemic last year.
Australia will be adopting a model more like that of the United Kingdom, Morrison said, which bans arrivals if they have visited any countries on its red-zone list of some 40 countries in the past 10 days.
“While we’re not adopting that list, it gives you somewhat of an idea of the type of approach we’ll be seeking to put in place from those high risk countries,” Morrison said.
Morrison’s comments come as two Australian states urged staff and guests in COVID-19 quarantine hotels to get tested immediately and fully self-isolate, launching investigations into three suspected cases of travellers contracting the virus from other residents.
Australia closed its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents more than a year ago to contain the pandemic, and travellers arriving from overseas are required to undergo a two-week hotel quarantine at their own expense.
While the country has fared much better than many other developed nations during the pandemic, with just over 29,500 cases and 910 deaths, its vaccination rollout programme has hit major roadblocks.
The government is battling with a shortage of vaccines, after delays to imports and is now unlikely to finish vaccinating its population before the end of 2021 while domestic ramp-up of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been sluggish.
Australia will now prioritise Pfizer vaccines for those under 50 with underlying health issues, in residential aged care and remote communities, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said, leaving older people to take the AstraZeneca vaccine or to wait.
“With a few exceptions, Pfizer is now restricted to those under 50,” he said.
“We recommend AstraZeneca. The risk benefit for over 50 is vastly in favour of being vaccinated. But people always have a choice and more Pfizer will be available later in the year.”
(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Melanie Burton in Melbourne; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)