What’s happening with covid visa holders?

Feb 7, 2024
Corona Virus Around Australia Flag. Concept Pandemic Outbreak in Country

The covid visa stream of sub-class 408 was introduced during the pandemic when international borders were closed. It enabled temporary entrants who were unable to leave Australia to maintain their lawful status and keep working. They could apply for a 12 month covid stream visa and then apply for another one if they wished.

It was originally available to temporary entrants whose substantive visa was due to expire within the next 28 days and were working in or had a job offer in a critical sector such as aged or health care, agriculture, disability care, child care or food processing. It was eventually extended to work in any sector.

I expected that this visa stream would be closed to new applications when international borders re-opened in early 2022 or anytime time after that. However, presumably due to ongoing labour shortages, the Coalition Government did not close the visa and the new Labor Government kept the visa stream open until it was closed to new applicants from September 2023. Existing covid visa stream holders could continue to apply for a further six month covid stream visa until 1 February 2024.

The effect of those decisions is highlighted in Chart 1.

The number of people on sub class 408 visas (mainly the covid visa stream) increased from 6,249 at end December 2021 to 149,657 at end September 2023. The key nationalities using the visa were either Australia’s major student source countries or major working holiday maker source countries. It was not surprising Australia’s international education industry was not happy with the length of time this visa was left open as the industry was losing tuition fee revenue.

The surge in covid visa holders would have contributed to the record level of net migration in 2022-23 and in the September quarter of 2023. The possible reasons the Government left the visa open for so long could be either a response to labour shortages and/or a concern that sudden closure of the visa stream would lead to a surge in asylum applications before the Government was ready to manage this.

Since September 2023, the number of covid visa holders in Australia has fallen to 115,547 at end December 2023. As the Government has promised to reduce the level of net migration, it will be hoping that this reduction has been driven largely by covid visa holders departing permanently and not by covid visa holders either leaving temporarily and set to return in the March quarter of 2024 or securing other temporary visas (some may be in the growing bridging visa backlog).

There is little publicly available data to know precisely what this group is doing. By end July 2024, there will be no more people holding a covid stream visa. Those in skilled jobs on reasonable salaries should be able to secure employer sponsorship or state nomination (although the number of state nominations available in 23-24 has been heavily restricted, as have invitations for the skilled independent category ).

What will the others do?

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