COVID-19’s enormous impact on Australia’s aviation and tourism industries has been brought back into focus with Qantas reporting a $2 billion loss and issuing another warning about the resumption of international travel.
Chief executive Alan Joyce has also stepped up criticism of state border closures, an issue that will be on the agenda at today’s National Cabinet meeting.
So what’s the latest and what can we expect today?
When will Australia lift its international travel ban?
The Federal Government warns the rates of coronavirus overseas mean it’s still too dangerous to allow widespread travel in and out of Australia.
“We are taking a very cautious approach,” Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said.
“From where we are here today, we can’t foresee the timetable by which international borders will be able to open.”
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham is still hopeful a travel bubble with New Zealand could be in place by the end of the year, despite the Auckland outbreak.
But New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made it clear she won’t be opening up corridors with other countries until they’ve had 28 days without any community transmission.
Mr Joyce said he was not expecting Qantas to start international flights again until mid-next year, while its United States routes may not resume until a coronavirus vaccine is found.
“The medical advice we have, a lot of the medical advice I think governments around the world are having, is that we potentially could see a vaccine by the middle, the end of next year and countries like the US may be the first country to have widespread use of that vaccine,” he said.
“So that could mean that the US is seen as a market by the end of ’21, hopefully that we could, dependent on a vaccine, start seeing flights again.”
What about Australians still stuck overseas?
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), there are still nearly 19,000 Australians overseas who want to come home.
They’re mostly in countries such as India, the Philippines and South Africa and several thousand are considered “vulnerable” because they’re facing medical or financial difficulties.
Pressure on hotel quarantine systems has led to caps on overseas arrivals and DFAT said that has made it more difficult for Australians to get seats on limited flights.
It has provided emergency loans to help nearly 400 people book tickets but said it has “limited leverage” with airlines when it comes to getting people onto planes.
When can I travel interstate?
That’s a matter for the state and territory leaders who are still keeping their borders closed but it’s become an increasingly heated national debate, with Mr Joyce and business groups suggesting some are being driven by local politics.
They want National Cabinet to develop consistent guidelines on when borders should be opened or shut, arguing both travellers and the industry need more certainty.
It’s not yet clear whether that will be raised in today’s meeting but leaders will discuss problems experienced by border communities, such as farmers being told to put their sheep on planes.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud warned the meeting will be a “flashpoint for the future of Australia’s federation”.
“Unless premiers commit to work with one another to find workable solutions to state border issues for regional Australians then they risk states becoming irrelevant to modern Australia,” he said.
What should I plan for the Christmas break?
After almost six months living in the shadow of COVID-19, many Australians were hoping they’d be able to reunite with loved ones and take a much-needed break over summer.
With international travel highly unlikely by that point, and state borders still uncertain, the Government and tourism operators are urging people to holiday closer to home.
Mr Joyce said some domestic routes, such as Brisbane to Cairns and Perth to Broome, were booming compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.
But some in the industry warn many businesses will collapse if intrastate travel is the only thing trying to prop them up.
“Australians will not spend like interstate or even international visitors in their own backyard,” John Hart from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry told a Senate committee this week.
Margy Osmond from the Tourism and Transport Forum said many regional towns were still missing out or weren’t prepared.
“Nobody seems prepared to drive more than four hours out of a capital city and in the main, it’s only two to four hours out of a capital city,” she said.
“Many of those places in the two- to four-hour zone don’t normally see this volume of tourists, they haven’t got anywhere near the kind of infrastructure to support it. Some of these places have got one public toilet.”
Mr Birmingham conceded Christmas plans for many were unclear but said people should still turn their mind to where they’d like to go.
“I understand the hesitation that people have, but if you’re not willing to book at this point in time, at least do some planning,” he said.
“If you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford that holiday and to undertake it safely, then you’re not only going to have a great time but you will be helping to save the jobs of fellow Australians.”
What else is on today’s National Cabinet agenda?
Aside from border issues, one of the main topics will be the impact COVID-19 is having on aged care facilities.
Leaders are expected to discuss the lessons learned from outbreaks in Victoria’s aged care sector as well as their own response plans.
There’ll also be an update on Australia’s efforts to secure a coronavirus vaccine and briefings from Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe and Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy.