The Albanese government imposed pre-flight Covid checks on travellers from China against the advice of the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly.
The 31 December advice, published by the health department, stated that Kelly did “not believe that there is sufficient public health rationale” for any additional requirements, labelling any restriction on travel from China “disproportionate to the risk”.
Announcing the federal government’s response on Sunday, the health minister, Mark Butler, sidestepped a question about the content of health advice, saying that it confirmed Australia was “well positioned in the fight against Covid” but the pre-flight checks were being imposed “out of an abundance of caution”.
The Coalition criticised the decision on Tuesday, with the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, calling on Butler to clarify “confusion” about the advice and “make it transparently clear about what are the trigger points moving forward”.
“That’s what builds confidence,” he told Channel Nine’s Today program.
The shadow assistant minister for mental health, Melissa McIntosh, said it was “quite perplexing” that Butler had “gone against the health advice of the chief medical officer of this country”.
“One of the reasons why Australia got through the pandemic was one of the best countries in the world to do so was because we followed Australia’s medical advice,” she told ABC News Breakfast. “Not following other countries’ [advice].”
In the advice published on Sunday, Kelly states he consulted chief health officers on the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on 30 December 2022, and there was “strong consensus that implementation of any restrictions to travel from China at this time would be inconsistent with the current national approach to the management of Covid-19 and disproportionate to the risk”.
“I do not believe that there is sufficient public health rationale to impose any restriction or additional requirements on travellers from China,” he stated.
Kelly cited Australia’s high levels of vaccination, immunity from prior infection, ready access to testing, strong surveillance mechanisms in Australia and that “the BF.7 Omicron sub-variant that appears to be a key driver to the outbreak in China has been present in Australia for some time”.
The written advice echoes comments made by Kelly on Thursday that “the variant that’s circulating mostly and driving the rising cases in China is a variant that we’ve already seen in Australia”.
Kelly also cited in the advice the fact it “is currently summer in Australia (as distinct from those countries who have chosen to implement enhanced border measures in recent days), which reduces the risk of transmission of respiratory viruses”.
“Notwithstanding, should you wish to explore in further detail the powers available to you as health minister under the Biosecurity Act 2015, I will ask that formal legal [advice] be prepared for your consideration.”
Kelly recommended greater surveillance including that the government “explore the feasibility of implementing an aircraft wastewater testing program”, a measure Butler gave the green light to on Monday.
Butler said on Sunday that he had “received written and verbal briefings from the commonwealth chief medical officer Prof Paul Kelly, about the emerging situation in China”.
“There is a broad consensus among all of the jurisdictional chief health officers … that the resumption of travel between China and Australia poses no immediate public health threat to Australians,” he said.
Butler said the pre-flight checks were being imposed out of an “abundance of caution”, citing the concerns of the World Health Organization about a lack of detailed information regarding the Covid wave in China.
“That lack of comprehensive information has led a number of countries in recent days to put in place various measures, not to restrict travel from China, it’s important to say, but to gather better information about what is happening epidemiologically in that country,” the health minister said.
On Tuesday, Butler acknowledged on FiveAA Radio that chief health officers had advised that “the resumption of travel between China and Australia poses no public health threat to Australians” – without referring to advice against changing settings.
Butler claimed that since Kelly’s advice “we started to see a number of countries move, England and France I think within 24 hours of my announcement just as one example”, despite the fact these countries’ settings were already accounted for in Kelly’s advice.
Further details about the pre-flight testing regime, released on Monday, reveal that rapid antigen tests will be accepted but must be administered or supervised by a medical practitioner.
Travellers on flights transiting through China – including Hong Kong and Macau – but originating in other countries do not need to undertake pre-departure testing. The new regime starts on Thursday.