New South Wales has announced a plan to open up to fully vaccinated international arrivals, with the premier declaring Australia cannot continue to live as a “hermit kingdom”.
Hours after the announcement was made, international airlines were frantically working to add thousands of tickets for flights to Sydney into their booking inventories.
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.
The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, revealed on Friday that the state would allow international arrivals with two doses of the vaccine to fly to NSW from 1 November. Incoming arrivals will not need to quarantine, either at a hotel or at home.
A cap of 210 unvaccinated arrivals per week will remain, with those travellers required to undergo 14-days hotel quarantine. Airlines were on Friday discussing the potential to coordinate the running of a weekly charter just for unvaccinated travellers.
“Quarantine is a thing of the past,” Perrottet said.
The decision is likely be welcomed by airlines and stranded Australians seeking to come home before Christmas. But it puts NSW in the odd position of announcing 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.
“We can’t live here in a hermit kingdom. 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.”
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”.
However, airline sources told Guardian Australia they were blindsided by the announcement. While airlines were on Friday working through the logistics of adding an additional 6,000 seats per week into their booking inventories, this was achievable because there are currently 6,000 seats being flown empty into Sydney each week under the 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.
“It would make little sense to have one or two unvaccinated passengers per flight, and difficult for airlines to manage,” Abrams said.
Additionally, he called for guidance as to how airlines should verify the vaccination status of travellers before boarding flights to Australia, and certainty about rules for managing international aircrews.
Abrams also said each airline would need to make individual calls as to how or if they prioritise stranded Australians who have been bumped from flights, amid an influx of interest from foreign nationals who may also be seeking to travel to Australia.
“With already some 6,000 seats coming into Sydney airport everyday, we’ll have more than enough capacity to bring that back all the stranded Australians shortly.”
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.”
Sydney radio station 2GB reported that Perrottet had not spoken with Morrison prior to the announcement. The Guardian has not yet confirmed that report.
Asked if the prime minister supported NSW’s plan, Perrottet said: “We have had numerous discussions with the prime minister about the state opening on 1 November, bringing it forward.”
The NSW plan is to prioritise the return of Australian citizens, but it is unclear how that will work. Perrottet said he wants to help residents of other states come home too.
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.
It appears to depart from the national reopening plan, based on Doherty Institute modelling, under which an 80% double-dose vaccination rate would trigger international arrivals from “safe countries”. The reopening plan also envisages the use of “proportionate quarantine”.
The Victorian health minister, Martin Foley, indicated the state would continue with its own trial of home quarantine and continue to use hotel quarantine. He said the state had not seen details of NSW’s plan, aside from a press release.
“Good on NSW. I can’t speak for what their thinking is. Victoria is signed up to the national cabinet plan for the reopening of international borders,” he said.
“We are participating in the trial of home-based quarantine as part of that arrangement and that is what we will do. Our hotel quarantine system continues to be in place; it continues to deliver on the caps for the international returnees.”
Asked if someone who flew from London via Sydney to Melbourne would be forced to quarantine, Foley said: “They will have to comply with the permit systems that apply in the Victorian circumstances. The NSW government has just announced this, as I understand it. We are yet to see the details.”
The Australian Capital Territory chief minister, Andrew Barr, said it was “sensible” to draw a distinction between vaccinated and non-vaccinated arrivals.
“My understanding of the national data is that it’s about four in 1,000 international arrivals who are testing positive at the moment,” he said. “That’s actually a lower rate of positivity from international arrivals than is circulating in the community at the moment.”