Prime minister Scott Morrison has put the brakes on the NSW plan to open to the world, declaring arrivals will be limited to Australian citizens and their immediate families only, just hours after the NSW premier said Australia could no longer live as “a hermit kingdom”.
NSW premier Dominic Perrottet appeared to take the federal government by surprise with his announcement the state would allow vaccinated international arrivals to enter NSW without the need to quarantine, either in a hotel, or at home.
Hours after the announcement was made, international airlines were frantically working to add thousands of tickets for flights to Sydney into their booking inventories.
But in a rushed press conference, Morrison slapped down any suggestion Australia’s borders would be thrown open to the world at large.
“We are not opening up to everyone coming back to Australia at the moment,” he said.
“I want to be clear about that. We will take this forward in stages as we have done in all these things.
“It is for the commonwealth and federal government to decide when the border opens and shuts at an international level and we will do that.”
Perrottet had announced NSW would allow international arrivals with two doses of the vaccine to arrive from 1 November. A cap of 210 unvaccinated arrivals per week would remain, with those travellers required to undergo 14-days hotel quarantine.
“We can’t live here in a hermit kingdom,” the premier said. “We’ve got to open up, and this decision today is a big one, but it is the right one to get NSW connected globally.”
Morrison said he “welcomed” the NSW plan, but said in the first instance, the border would only be opened to Australian citizens, permanent residents, and their immediate families, which will now include parents of Australian citizens.
“We will see how that goes and then we will look to other priorities set out as being skilled migration as well as students to Australia and eventually we will move onto the challenge of dealing with international visitors to Australia,” Morrison said.
“Everything all in good time. We are not rushing into this. We are taking it step by step.”
Morrison did not directly answer a question on whether he knew of Perrottet’s announcement ahead of time, only saying he had discussions on the issue “prior to him becoming premier” and that the announcement was “consistent with the advice I have had from my own chief medical officer”.
The prime minister said he had written to the nation’s leaders earlier this week, “asking them to confirm the arrangements they would have so we could make a decision about whether and when Australians will be able to travel overseas again and return”.
He said Perrottet “wrote back to me today”, confirming the 1 November date for NSW, as well as the no quarantine arrangement for vaccinated Australians.
The next national cabinet meeting is not scheduled until early next month.
The decision to lift quarantine requirements will likely be welcomed by airlines and stranded Australians seeking to come home before Christmas. But it puts NSW in the odd position of announcing increased international arrivals at a time when many of its residents are still barred from regional or interstate travel.
“I think people in NSW will be flying to Bali before Broome … We need to rejoin the world,” Perrottet said.
He said the state government would be asking the commonwealth to ensure arrivals are tested and cleared before boarding flights to Sydney. He said the commonwealth would also verify a person’s vaccination status before they get on a plane to Australia.
“We know from 1 November our vaccination rates will be incredibly high across the city and across the state, and we want to be able to say to the world that we treat everybody equally,” Perrottet said.
NSW has made the announcement two weeks ahead of time to give airlines and the federal government the ability to “put on extra flights and put those processes in place for people who are fully vaccinated”.
Earlier on Friday, prior to the prime minister’s press conference, an airline source told Guardian Australia that over the coming 48 hours, 6,000 seats per week will become available to book across all of the airlines currently operating flights into Sydney.
Airline sources told Guardian Australia they were blindsided by the announcement. While airlines were on Friday working through the logistics of adding additional seats into their booking inventories, this was achievable because there are currently 6,000 seats being flown empty into Sydney each week under the current strict arrival caps.
Airline sources said the task of scheduling additional flights into Sydney, which required recalling aircraft and laid-off aviation crews, will take longer to organise.
“We’ve been caught by surprise on this,” an airline source said. “We’ve had zero consultation it was happening today. There is no formal guidance for us, but we’ll at least be able to add those empty seats on the existing flights we’re running. Some time within the next 48 hours people will see those tickets come online.”
Barry Abrams, the executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, welcomed the development but needed some urgent clarification on what would be required of airlines.
One issue facing airlines is how to manage the meagre cap for unvaccinated passengers within their booking systems. He said airlines were discussing coordinating with the government for one charter flight per week just to carry the entire 210 unvaccinated passengers under that week’s cap.
There are 45,000 Australians who have registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being stranded overseas and requiring assistance to return home.
Perrottet, when asked whether the commonwealth, which has responsibility for international arrivals and borders, had agreed to the plan, responded: “We have had numerous discussions with the federal government and we want to open up.”
Pressed on his conversations with the prime minister, Scott Morrison, Perrottet said: “We have had numerous discussions with the prime minister about the state on 1 November, bringing it forward … they control the international border. You can open the international border but returning Australians and tourists aren’t going to come into Sydney if they have to sit in a hotel for two weeks locked away.”
The state’s case numbers have continued to fall in recent days. NSW recorded 399 cases and four deaths in the past 24 hours.
Perrottet also announced an intention to delay regional travel for Sydney residents until 1 November.
The major shift in policy was still being digested by other state and territory leaders on Friday.