SYDNEY: People cross a street in front of a mural of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on a building in Sydney. - AFP

SYDNEY: Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended his "Fortress Australia" COVID-19 restrictions yesterday, as experts warned that plans to keep the borders closed for another year will create a "hermit nation". "Everyone is keen to get back to a time that we once knew," the conservative leader said in the face of growing calls for international borders to reopen. "The reality is we're living this year in a pandemic that's worse than last year."

Last March, Australia took the unprecedented step of closing its borders to foreign visitors and banning its globetrotting citizens from leaving. That prompted the first population decline since World War I, stranded tens of thousands of Australian citizens overseas and separated hundreds of thousands of residents from family members. But the country now has almost no community transmission and life for most is relatively normal. And the government's recent suggestion that borders could remain closed for another year has sparked fierce debate.

Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid yesterday warned: "Australia cannot keep its international borders closed indefinitely." He called for improved quarantine facilities and vaccination efforts to permit borders to slowly open. "At some point, it will not be possible to justify the maintenance of border closures given their impact on lives and livelihoods," he said. A University of Sydney task force examining how Australia can safely reopen this week went further, warning the country "cannot continue to lock itself off from the world as a hermit nation indefinitely".

Panel member Professor Marc Stears said the initial snap measures to keep the pandemic at bay were understandable. "You have to remember there really was terror," he told AFP. "At the start of the pandemic the Australian public were inundated with images from Italy and New York." "There were strong demands for strong action, so the government took the decision to close the border.

I don't think anyone really knew how effective a policy that would turn out to be." But, Stears said, as much of the world tentatively reopens, the costs of isolation are mounting. "Not only have you got immediate economic and social costs, but you have the character of the country in question here. There is a fork in the road moment for openness versus closedness."

Vox populi

The economic impact of border closures has been blunted by massive stimulus spending, but a growing number of business leaders from hard-hit industries are also speaking out. Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka led the charge Monday, arguing Australia needs to accept that COVID-19 will not be eradicated and borders should gradually reopen. "Some people may die, but it will be way smaller than with the flu," she said. Morrison called the comments "somewhat insensitive", insisting he would maintain the tight border regime as long as necessary. "I'm not going to take risks with Australians' lives," he said.

The border closures appear to have widespread public support. A recent Newspoll survey showed 73 percent of Australians want travel banned until at least mid-2022. Leaders in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia who made a virtue of banning travellers from other Australian states in response to outbreaks, have won reelection at a canter. Slowly, officials are starting to link reopening borders to vaccine targets.

So far only three million doses have been delivered in a country of 25 million people. The premier of Australia's most populous state New South Wales yesterday indicated a target of around 80 percent of adults fully vaccinated. "I don't want us to be closed off from the world longer than we need to," said Gladys Berejiklian. - AFP