No public health rationale to screen China flights for COVID, Chief Medical Officer says

Key points

  • Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly advised the health minister there was no public health rationale to screen flights from China for COVID 
  • Passengers flying from China, Hong Kong and Macau from this Thursday must test negative to COVID within 48 hours of their flight to come to Australia. 
  • Leading health experts say the new measures will have no impact on the spread of COVID in Australia or the risk of new variants. 
  • Australia follows 10 other nations that have started screening flights from China, after the Biden administration announced the first ban last week. 
  • It is not yet known what standard of proof will be required, how long the bans remain in place or if transit passengers will be affected. 

The Albanese government imposed mandatory COVID-19 testing on travellers from China against the explicit advice of the Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, who told the government there was not “sufficient public health rationale” for the measure.

In his advice, dated December 31 to Health Minister Mark Butler, released late on Monday, Kelly said: “I do not believe that there is sufficient public health rationale to impose any restriction or additional requirements on travellers from China.”

Australia will follow 10 other nations, including France, in screening passengers from China for COVID. Credit:AP

He said that after discussing the matter with the state and territory medical officers as well as public health officials from New Zealand, there was a “strong consensus” that any new restrictions would be inconsistent with Australia’s national approach to living with the virus and “disproportionate to the risk.”

Kelly declined an interview request on Monday.

Top scientific experts across Australia also declared the move lacks a public health justification and airports demanding more detail on how the rules will work.

The government is still finalising the details of new restrictions, sparking concerns in the airline industry that people who fly through Hong Kong or transit through mainland China could be required to test before arriving in Australia.

The screening regime, announced on New Year’s Day, is due to begin on Thursday, although questions remain about how it will be policed, what standard of proof is required and what the consequences are for anyone who tests positive on arrival.

On January 1, announcing the restrictions, Butler said he had “received written and verbal briefings” from Kelly, and did acknowledge that there was “broad consensus” among all jurisdictions that China’s outbreak “poses no immediate public health threat to Australians”.

Butler announced the restrictions anyway, saying that tests will be required within 48 hours of departure from China, Hong Kong or Macau in response to an explosion of COVID-19 infections in China and the potential for new variants.

The decision to screen passengers was taken out of an “abundance of caution”, the health minister said, citing concerns voiced by the World Health Organisation about a lack of detailed information about the situation in China.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly’s advice to Mark Butler was published on Monday night. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“That lack of comprehensive information has led a number of countries in recent days to put in place various measures, not to restrict travel from China, it’s important to say, but to gather better information about what is happening epidemiologically in that country,” Butler said.

The Australian policy follows recent moves by the United States, Japan, India, South Korea, France and Italy to impose testing mandates for Chinese visitors.

Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said the government would not introduce mandatory isolation for travellers from China who test positive on arrival. “If they test [positive before their flight] then of course we’re asking them not to get on the plane and … the airlines to play a role in preventing that from happening,” he told Brisbane radio 4BC.

One of China’s top representatives in Australia expressed “deep regret” over the policy, which he said unfairly punished Chinese travellers just as the two nations were trying to rebuild diplomatic and trade relations.

Zhou Limin, China’s Consul-General in Sydney, noted with dismay that the testing announcement came just weeks after Foreign Minister Penny Wong travelled to Beijing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Australia-China diplomatic relations.

“We deeply regret that the Australian government has announced restrictions on inbound travellers from China,” Zhou said.

“China believes that the prevention and control measures adopted by one country should be scientific and proportionate, not targeting at one certain other country, and should not affect normal personnel exchanges and cooperation.”

Leading public health experts said Australia should focus on increasing surveillance of rising sub-variants circulating through increasing wastewater and PCR based testing instead of singling out China.

James McCaw, a pandemic advisor to the federal government, said he believed there was “no public health reason” for Australia to have particular requirements on travellers arriving from China.

“The virus continues to circulate globally,” the University of Melbourne epidemiologist said. “We do need to monitor for variants carefully, but screening everyone coming from China won’t make any material difference to the state of the transmission in Australia.”

University of Melbourne infectious diseases expert Fiona Russell said: “This will not make any public health impact … this is not a science-based decision; I suspect it’s a political decision.”

She continued: “We shouldn’t be turning back the clock to this kind of reactionary, knee-jerk policy response.”

Health Minister Mark Butler said China’s lack of transparency and concern about new variants were why Australia would start screening travellers from China.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

James Goodwin from the Australian Airports Association said: “There needs to be urgent clarification on transiting passengers given Hong Kong has been included in the announcement.

“Many people could pass through Hong Kong on the way to Australia and our view is those requiring testing should be based on the country of point of origin as long as the passenger doesn’t leave the airport.”

Infectious diseases physician and associate professor at the University of Queensland Paul Griffin said the federal government was “overreacting to a single country”.

The vaccine expert said the next new variant of concern could mutate anywhere in the world.

“A far better strategy would be just to strengthen our surveillance in our country,” he said. “Bring back wastewater testing in all states, make sure we still do a good proportion of PCR testing and sequencing so we know what is being imported and what is circulating.”

Griffin questioned why China was being targeted when about 40 percent of COVID-19 cases in the United States were caused by the highly contagious Omicron sub-variant, XBB.1.5.

“In my view, that is the most concerning and notable sub-variant at the moment,” he said.

Kirby Institute virologist Associate Professor Stuart Turville said attempts to stop new sub-variants from entering Australia were futile.

“Whatever sub-variants dominate globally will inevitably come up in our mix in Australia,” Turville said. “If you believe the genomics coming of Shanghai, all the dominant sub-variants that are coming through in China are ones that we’ve seen before anyway.”

Head of Monash University’s epidemiological modelling unit, James Trauer, said China’s most dominant sub-variant of Omicron, BF.7, had already been detected widely in Australia.

“It’s not one of the most concerning variants currently around from our perspective,” Trauer said.

Opposition shadow health minister Anne Ruston was contacted for comment.

“The variant rationale doesn’t seem valid to me. Realistically, we’re likely to have restrictions on travellers from China in place for a few weeks, which I can’t see having any effect on variants emerging.”

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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