Australia reopens international borders for first time in pandemic

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia eased its international border restrictions on Monday for the first time in the pandemic, allowing some of its vaccinated public to travel freely and many families to reunite, sparking emotional embraces at Sydney’s airport.

After 18 months of some of the world’s strictest coronavirus border policies that banned citizens from coming back into the country, and leaving it, unless granted an exemption, millions of Australians in Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra are now free to travel.

A flight by flag carrier Qantas Airways from Los Angeles touched down in Sydney at 6 a.m., Australia’s biggest airline said, the first in months to let COVID-19 vaccinated Australians walk off a plane without quarantining.

International travellers also arrived in Sydney via Singapore Airlines early on Monday.

Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corp on Monday that the travel changes would immediately aid the economy.

“It’s a day for celebration – the fact that Australians can move more freely in and out of our country without home quarantine, if they’re double-vaccinated,” Frydenberg said.

Television and social media footage showed tearful family reunions, with strict travel rules previously prohibiting many people from attending significant events, including weddings and funerals.

The relaxation of travel rules is tied to rising vaccination rates with more than 80% of people aged 16 and older in Australia’s two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, as well as the capital territory fully vaccinated.

Australians and permanent residents living abroad may now return, with foreign ministry data showing about 47,000 people are hoping to do so.

Most tourists – even vaccinated ones – have to wait to come to Australia, although vaccinated tourists from New Zealand will be allowed in from Monday.

Unvaccinated travellers will still face quarantine restrictions and all travellers need proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to boarding.

The change in travel rules, however, is not uniform across Australia, as the country’s states and territories have differing vaccination rates and health policies.

Australia closed its borders at the start of the pandemic and let only a limited number of citizens and permanent residents return from abroad, subject to an exemption and a mandatory 14-day quarantine period in a hotel at their own expense.

But as it switched a COVID-zero pandemic management strategy towards living with the virus through extensive vaccinations, borders are gradually reopening.

While the Delta outbreak kept Sydney and Melbourne in lockdowns for months until recently, Australia’s COVID-19 cases remain far lower than many comparable countries, with just over 170,500 infections and 1,735 deaths.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly and Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Robert Birsel and Daniel Wallis)

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