UK coronavirus: What a full Australia-style border shutdown would mean

Border chaos, knee-jerk lockdowns, no end date in sight, and no guarantee it would even work: What a full Australian-style border shutdown could mean for the UK

  • UK to use Australia-style border lockdown with some arrivals forced to isolate
  • But some ministers are pushing to go further and bring in full border closures 
  • That would mean tickets home being rationed, circuit-breaker lockdowns every time a case escapes quarantine, and no guarantee when system would end
  • Huge doubts also remain over whether system would even work in the UK, which is far more reliant on keeping its borders open than Australia 

The UK is just days away from starting its first experiment with Australia-style Covid border restrictions, with high-risk arrivals forced into 10-day hotel quarantines. 

But already some are clamouring for the government to go further, insisting that only a full border shutdown will keep Britain safe from overseas Covid variants.

Enthusiasts point to Australia as a prime example of the benefits – 28,000 Covid cases, 900 deaths, an economy that has already started growing, and bars, restaurants and shops open for business.

But border closures have also been hugely disruptive Down Under – with tens of thousands of Australians stranded abroad, states plunged into lockdown every time cases escape quarantine, and still no plan for how the measures will be eased.

If the same system were brought to the UK it is likely those problems would not only be mirrored but magnified, since this country is far less isolated than Australia and far more reliant on its neighbours to function.   

Meanwhile that same reliance means the system would be far less likely to protect the UK, meaning the costs – both economic and human – could end up far outweighing the benefits.

Here, MailOnline breaks down exactly what the system is, what it would look like if it was brought over here, and the key differences that make it less likely to work:

What is the Australian system?

Australia has completely shut its borders, meaning nobody is allowed into or out of the country unless they have an exemption – the most common being citizens returning from overseas and key workers carrying out essential business.

Australia has completely closed its borders to arrivals, and even those who are exempt from the travel ban must quarantine at hotels for 14 days on arrival

But even then, most of those allowed into the country are forced into a 14-day hotel quarantine which can be extended depending on the results of two mandatory PCR tests carried out during that period. 

Some quarantine exemptions have been granted, for example to athletes visiting for the Australian Open, but this has caused huge public backlash. 

How disruptive has it been?

Very. Because all incoming passengers have to quarantine in hotels, their numbers must be strictly controlled so they do not exceed hotel capacity. 

For Sydney – the main port of arrival – this means only around 1,500 inbound tickets can be sold each week. For smaller states, it is less than 500. 

That has meant 40,000 Australians have ended up getting stranded abroad, many on expired visas meaning they cannot get jobs in their host countries and are relying on money sent from home to survive.

Rationing tickets while demand is high has also forced the cost of flights up, with returnees also facing a $1,700 hotel bill for their time in mandatory quarantine, meaning that for some, returning home is no longer a possibility.

The system has left tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas and has not stopped the need for lockdowns – with Victoria entering a five-day circuit-breaker today

Protesters in the state of Victoria confront police as a new lockdown is brought into force, despite all arrivals being quarantined

And the disruption has not just been limited to those overseas. Large sectors of Australia’s economy are reliant on tourists – either for low-skilled labour or for holiday spending – meaning GDP has taken a hit.

In Q2 last year the economy contracted by a record 7 per cent, and while it has rebounded since, 2020 will likely be a year of stagnation for the country as a whole.

The disruption has also hit farms, with landowners reporting that crops have been left to rot in the fields due to a shortage of pickers, with the situation expected to get worse unless 26,000 workers can be found soon. 

Meanwhile the state of Victoria has been forced into repeated circuit-breaker lockdowns because cases keep escaping quarantine hotels, with one last year lasting for 111 days.

The state entered another five-day shutdown just today after cases of the UK variant escaped from a quarantine hotel and caused 13 cases, sparking panic buying. 

How bad would UK disruption be?

It would likely be far worse. The UK is more connected to its neighbours, receives more passengers each year, and is more reliant on imports to keep the economy running than Australia.

In 2018-19, the last year before the pandemic struck, the UK received some 145million arrivals including Britons returning from overseas, while Australia received just 21 million.

Even in 2020, as the pandemic shut down global travel, the UK saw some 26million arrivals from January to October – surpassing Australia’s pre-pandemic level.

Around half of those arrivals were UK citizens returning home, the data reveals, meaning that Britain risks stranding millions of citizens overseas if it brings in the kind of ticket rationing required to make border shutdowns work. 

UK border disruption would be extreme – Britain welcomes 120million more arrivals each year than Australia, meaning delays would hit harder

Such a move would divide families and loved ones, possibly for years. Australia has so-far been unable to say when its restrictions will end.

The Australia-style system would also prohibit those within the UK from flying abroad to see those who have been stranded.

Meanwhile the UK could be forced into knee-jerk lockdowns of the kind seen in Victoria every time cases escape quarantine, or risk defeating the point of the system.

While Australia is able to manage these lockdowns on a state-by-state basis, the UK is far smaller than most Australian states – meaning nationwide circuit-breaker lockdowns could come into effect even if only a handful of cases are detected. 

Problems within UK farming would also be greater than those experienced in Australia, since Britain is thought to rely on foreign workers for 99 per cent of farm labour during harvest months.

The number of overseas workers needed to harvest UK crops is also estimated to be 40,000, roughly double the number Australia currently requires. 

Many Britons would also face being stranded overseas, since the number of arrivals would be limited by the number of quarantine hotel rooms available

Would the system even work?

It’s doubtful. Australia is a naturally-isolated country, is far larger than the UK, has more natural resources, and is therefore more self-sufficient that Britain.  

Australia is a net exporter of goods – meaning it exports more than it imports each year – while the UK is a net importer – meaning we rely on goods coming into the country to keep our economy functioning.

The disparity is particularly obvious when it comes to food. 

Australia is one of the most food-secure nations on earth: It produces far more food than its citizens can eat in a year, and exports around 70 per cent of its annual crop.

Meanwhile Britain only produces around 64 per cent of its food and needs to import vast quantities – especially from Europe – to keep supermarket shelves full.

Australia is a net exporter of goods, meaning it produces more than it needs to function each year and sells the surplus overseas

Meanwhile the UK is a net importer, meaning we are reliant on goods coming into the country to keep the economy running

The UK is also more reliant on medicine imports than Australia, buying some $9.2million-worth in 2019 while Australia bought just $3.5million-worth.

Since Britain could not function without these imports, exemptions would have to be granted for the workers involved in transporting them back and forth.

But, for every exemption granted, the UK pokes a hole in its safety net – allowing cases to sneak in the back door even while the front doors remain firmly closed.

Because the UK is far more reliant on imports than Australia, our safety net would have far more holes in it. 

The UK government also hopes to use border shutdowns to stop new and potentially vaccine-busting Covid variants from arriving in the country, but even in Australia this has proved impossible.

The Victorian lockdown was sparked because the UK variant of the virus – thought to be 70 per cent more infectious and up to 30 per cent more deadly – escaped a quarantine hotel and began spreading among the local community.

New Zealand – another country held up as a Covid success story – also reported community spread of the South African variant in Auckland earlier this year, despite also using border shutdowns.  

Exemptions would be granted for supply chain workers, but each exemption is a hole in the safety net – and the UK would have many more holes than Australia

How long would the system be in place for? 

Nobody knows. While Australia has successfully reopened large parts of its economy, international travel is one area where plans have run badly aground.

Ministers said late last year that they hoped to have a quarantine-free ‘travel corridor’ set up with New Zealand by Christmas, but two months later they are nowhere close to achieving that.

Currently, the ‘corridor’ only operates one-way, allowing those in New Zealand to come to Australia but not the other way around.

Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand PM, is dragging her feet over whether to allow Australians into the country after ministers abruptly closed all travel down in January when cases of the South African variant were detected on her shores.

She has questioned whether New Zealand airlines would be willing to operate in an environment where closures can happen at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile plans to bring back overseas students, which was also due to happen before Christmas, have been scrapped.

Australia has refused to say when border measures will be eased, even with cases averaging just a handful per week

Plans to allow seasonal workers back into the country have been given the green light, but under very tight restrictions and amid warnings there could still be a labour shortage.

In terms of international travel, the government has yet to publish its plans but suggested last week that travel could be restarted using vaccine passports.

Tourism minister Dan Tehan said that passports will be issued to those who have had two doses of vaccine, and could provide blanket exemption from Covid lockdown rules – including border closures. 

However, Australia’s vaccination programme has yet to start and the government has already said that it is unlikely everyone will have vaccines until October this year.

Even then, health ministers have warned that international travel is unlikely to restart until 2022 at the earliest, even if everyone is vaccinated. 

‘I think that we’ll go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions,’ Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy said last month, adding that  quarantine for travellers will likely continue ‘for some time’. 

As with lockdowns, border closures are also effective only so long as they are in place – as soon as they are lifted, the virus is free to move around again and potentially start infecting people.

While Australia is well-placed to shut its borders and keep them shut for some time, it cannot stay cut off forever and will have to reopen eventually. 

It remains to be seen, even with vaccines, what effect that will have on the country.  

The UK, which has a much higher infection rate, could therefore be left facing months if not years of border shutdowns – badly hurting the economy

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