Australia disregards medical advice, introduces mandatory testing for Chinese arrivals

Jan 5, 2023
Woman showing thumbs up and antigen self test card with negative result for Covid-19

Australia’s Albanese government has taken the lead of countries in North America, Europe and Asia by introducing COVID-19 testing measures on arrivals from China. The decision was reached in variance to advice from the Commonwealth’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly that there was no “sufficient public health rationale” for the measure.

It looks like yet another re-run, only this time on a more modest scale. But the COVID-19 surge in China as a result of easing pandemic restrictions has led a number of countries to impose testing requirements upon arrivals from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau

On the surface, the signals of panic are yet to manifest. Concern, however, is abundant, given Beijing’s own admission that the outbreak has become virtually impossible to monitor, with one estimate suggesting that a fifth of the Chinese population was infected with COVID within the first 20 days of December.

Australia’s Albanese government has taken the lead of countries in North America, Europe and the Asian region after holding a position against mandatory pre-departure testing. The decision was reached in variance to advice offered by the Commonwealth’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly. In his December 31, 2022 letter, Kelly expressed the view to Health Minister Mark Butler that there was no “sufficient public health rationale” for the measure.

In Kelly’s view, any restrictions or additional requirements on arrivals from China, in the absence of any “specific threat”, were unnecessary. Furthermore, he could point to a consensus between himself, the public health officers across the states and territories, and peers in New Zealand, that “implementation of any restrictions to travel from China at this time would be inconsistent with the current national approach to the management of COVID-19 and disproportionate to the risk.”

Chinese researchers and officials have been uploading genome sequence data from hundreds of coronavirus samples to the global online database Gisaid. Xu Wenbo, a senior official based at the Chinese Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, stated last month that a national genetic database of COVID samples was being developed. The picture, while incomplete, shows the spread of a number of Omicron sub-variants along the lines of those already identified in Europe and North America.

One sequenced sample, by way of example, revealed that 80 per cent featured the Omicron sub-variant BF.7, with 20 per cent being BA.5.2. Both are spin-off derivations from the BA.5 strain. A member of the research team in question was reported in the Financial Times as urging caution in drawing firm conclusions. “The sample size is so small we still need more data to figure out the full picture.”

Certainly, in terms of following other countries, the Australian government has placed itself on the same, increasingly crowded page: the United States, Canada, England, France, Italy and Spain, with India, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia doing the same in the Indo-and Asia-Pacific region. Initially, Kelly had the ear of Butler and Albanese; Australia was holding firm.

That firmness rapidly crumbled. A deciding factor here was the absence of a clear picture about the rapidly evolving situation in China. While samples are being gathered, there has been a lag in the uploading, in real time, of genomic sequencing of COVID cases in the country. Yin Wenwu of the CDC did not inspire confidence by revealing how authorities were only now compiling data from hospitals and local government surveys, not to mention emergency call volumes and fever medicine sales, which would “make up for deficiencies in our reporting”.

In a radio interview, Australia’s Health Minister explained that the change of heart was a direct response to the meeting between the PRC and the World Health Organisation, after which the latter expressed concerns about insufficient information. “Now, [the WHO] said that the measures that we’ve taken and pretty much every country to which we usually compare ourselves has taken were ‘understandable’ in light of that absence of information.”

The Liberal National opposition is now suggesting that the government has much explaining to do in this regard. Risibly, the opposition leader Peter Dutton has championed the cause of Chinese Australians, the very same individuals who expressed fear and outrage at his fashioned Sinophobia, along with those of his colleagues, and who voted against his party at the last election in droves. “Chinese Australians want to return home after their holidays and need more certainty in their travel plans.”

On slightly better ground was Shadow Health Minister Anne Ruston, who pointed out that the pre-flight testing requirements, be they by PCR tests or rapid antigen tests, would see no genomic sequencing. “There will be no information about issues around new variants of concern.”

As for the government’s departure from the advice given by medical specialists, the opposition’s position is mired in quicksand. When the same opposition was in government under the stewardship of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, medical advice, notably from state medical advisors in Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland, was treated as a nuisance best ignored. Pots and kettles come to mind.

The latest chapter in the ever-jittery field of COVID policy shows that pandemic responses in many countries remain a matter of politics, counselled, rather than steered, by medical advice. The one thing the Albanese government and their other counterparts can at least point to is that China still requires those entering its territory to undertake testing. But while a principle of reciprocity has been inadvertently imposed, Kelly’s caution against any disproportionate measure against a targeted country remains.

As has been pointed out by the racial justice group Democracy in Colour, similar surges of case infections in countries such as the United States have not been met by the same, albeit modest restrictions. “Already,” reports its director Neha Madhok, “we are hearing reports from the Asian Australian community that they are witnessing a rise in anti-Asian hate speech online as a result of this strange decision by Minister Butler.” As ever, innocent bystanders will suffer.

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