3 Jan 2023

Australia's chief medical officer advised against mandatory Covid-19 testing for China travellers

3:04 pm on 3 January 2023

By Jake Evans, ABC political reporter

The passenger flow increased significantly at Xi'an Xianyang International Airport in Xi'an City, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, 14 December, 2022.

Passengers at Xi'an Xianyang International Airport in Xi'an City, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, 14 December, 2022. Photo: stringer / ImagineChina / Imaginechina via AFP

Australia's chief medical officer explicitly advised the Albanese government not to introduce mandatory Covid-19 testing on travellers from China a day before the measure was announced.

In a letter dated 31 December, released late on Monday night, Paul Kelly told Health Minister Mark Butler there was not a "sufficient public health rationale" for the move.

On New Year's Day, Australia followed a number of other countries including the United Kingdom, the United States and France to impose compulsory tests on people travelling from China.

But Professor Kelly advised in the absence of any "specific threat" from a Covid-19 variant and with high vaccination rates in the country, any restrictions or additional requirements on China were unnecessary.

Professor Kelly also said there was consensus between himself, New Zealand's public health officers and other state and territory chief health officers that such a move would be "inconsistent" with Australia's national approach and "disproportionate" to the risk.

Instead, the chief medical officer recommended Australia consider an aircraft wastewater testing programme, voluntary sampling of incoming travellers on arrival, expanded community wastewater testing for Covid variants and an enhanced follow-up programme for people who tested positive for Covid.

Dutton criticises 'panicked response'

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the government needed to explain why it had ignored the chief medical officer's advice.

"The last thing our country needs is a panicked response from a government that doesn't have a plan and, frankly, over the last week, has been making it up as they go along," Dutton said in a statement.

"Chinese Australians want to return home after their holidays and need more certainty in their travel plans.

"Australians expect that their government is prepared for situations like this; instead, we are left with chaos and confusion."

Butler said the requirements were a "modest" imposition that would safeguard against potential new variants entering the country.

"We think it's a modest, balanced decision, in addition to a range of measures that we're going to put in place - for example, wastewater screening of airplanes that arrive from China," he said.

"[It will] ensure we get that sort of information that the World Health Organisation has said is at the moment quite absent."

Director of racial justice group Democracy in Colour, Neha Madhok, said the health minister had not provided evidence of why testing requirements were only required for travellers from China.

"When … cases in countries like the USA are surging, it is not clear why it is primarily people of Chinese origin who are singled out by this move," Madhok said in a statement.

"Already, we are hearing reports from the Asian Australian community that they are witnessing a rise in anti-Asian hate speech online as a result of this strange decision by Minister Butler."

Exemptions and details of testing requirements released

Testing requirements on arrivals from China will come in to effect from 12.01am Thursday, ahead of the expected lifting of Chinese travel restrictions on 8 January.

Travellers from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, will be required to take a Covid test within 48 hours of their departure and receive a negative result.

Passengers will need to take a PCR or other Nucleic Acid Amplification test, or else take a rapid antigen test administered or supervised by a medical practitioner.

However flight crew, children under 12 and people who can prove they recently recovered from Covid will be exempted from testing.

People on flights transiting through China will also not require negative test results.

Announcing the move, Butler said the decision was taken "out of an abundance of caution" and because of a lack of detailed epidemiological data in China.


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