The aviation sector in Australia and around the world was the canary in the coal mine for COVID-19.
The closure of our borders to international travel was the first decisive move to limit the spread of COVID-19 into our community. Re-opening Australia’s borders will be a great moment, a sign that the worst is behind us. In reality though, that still looks a way off.
Victoria’s crisis aside, Australia has been remarkably successful in achieving the goal of suppression. So successful in fact, that elimination has appeared tantalisingly within reach. So far however, pursuing such a strategy has proved elusive.
So, we must plan to live sustainably with the virus. We cannot be sure when or if a vaccine will be available. We can’t even be sure how many among our community will access it once it arrives. It’s hardly a foundation for economic recovery.
No one should interpret this as putting the economy before health. We need to recognise it is not a binary choice and respect how interrelated these two priorities really are.
Clearly, Victoria is not ready to open-up to the rest of the nation just yet. That means Melbourne Airport will remain open for essential travel only for the time being. As a state, we had to act to reduce the overwhelming pressure on the health system and minimise loss of life. Thankfully, the current restrictions are moving us toward these goals.
Before COVID, six of the 10 busiest domestic air routes in Australia originated in Melbourne. Around 40% of the domestic fleet passed through Melbourne before lunch every weekday. And around a quarter of the country’s GDP was being generated by the Victorian economy.
The issues currently faced by Victoria are creating a drag on the whole country, so we really are all in this together.
The Domestic Passenger Journey Protocol, informed by health advice from the Australian Health Principal Protection Committee (AHPPC) and endorsed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health, provides a clear and credible plan to safely resume domestic aviation.
Australia's major airports and airlines provide a highly controllable, point-to-point environment complete with existing track and trace mechanisms via our domestic airline partners. It is far more predictable and manageable than border crossings by road.
Air travel has been intertwined with COVID, particularly international arrivals and their associated risk at the beginnings of this crisis. But our domestic aviation should be recognised as a process which can be tightly managed, supporting tracking and tracing and facilitating safe environments. Aviation is an essential part of reopening the nation safely.
With reliable data demonstrating that we are now past the peak, we need to look over the horizon to what comes next. At present, Australia’s national businesses are working on a state-by-state basis, adapting to the local COVID situation and restrictions. It must be a nightmare. We need to be joined up. Our island nation can’t afford to be a collection of states isolated from one another.
How do we open the economy in a managed and planned way? And importantly, how do we adopt a truly national approach to coming out of this crisis?
We must learn the lessons of Victoria’s quarantine experience and double down on rapid contact tracing and other critical elements of the response.
NSW has led the nation in demonstrating how the suppression strategy can work. It hasn’t been perfect. It can’t be. But the speed with which NSW has been able to identify outbreaks, track and trace cases and get them under control is a case study in how we can manage the health risk and maintain a functioning economy.
Notably, Premier Gladys Berejiklian has been clear and consistent that her state’s borders will not be up a minute longer than necessary. My hope is that as soon as Victorian can bring its outbreak to similar levels of control, these two great states can lead the nation on our long road of our economic recovery.
Planning needs to start yesterday. There is not a moment to lose.
Again, it’s not health or economy, we must strive for both. This should be the aim.