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Vaccinating returning travellers- Part III

Challenges, questions, answers

The following article is Part III of a series of articles looking into the value of vaccinating returning travellers as an up-stream solution to keeping Australia Covid-free. The first article in the series could be found here. I recommend reading it as a necessary context for this one.


By the time you read this article, we would have already covered some impressive ground.

We would have established the potential value of vaccinating return travellers as a tool to keeping Australia Covid-free — by way of mostly taking entry to the community via returning travellers, off the table.

We would have also covered the way such an approach could actually be brought to life — from what vaccines, to how we could get it to the arms of returning travellers.

And time and time again you would have heard me say — that this could turn out to be one of our strongest tools against the virus, one of our most impactful tools in keeping Australia Covid-free.

That returning travellers could be one of the most important groups for us to vaccinate. More important than almost anyone.

Great, recap completed, but you are not here for the recap, you are here because you are yet to be convinced. You probably want to have some key questions answered. Or maybe you are so convinced you want to know what to say when people ask x. Well, this is what Part III was written for.

The following article will explore some of the big challenges to the approach and try and and answer to some of them.

Let us begin.

Challenges and Answers

What if we can not get to everyone?

Seriously, what if we simply can not scale this approach across all locations.

The partnership and the embassy approach look nice enough as a concept but, it will take us a while to implement it everywhere. Moreover, once we start looking into this more closely there are going to be plenty of locations and situations where it would be impractical to apply this approach.

True that — I do not want to argue with this one. We are not going to be able to implement this everywhere.

But also — we don’t need to.

We don’t need to cover everyone. If we managed to apply this approach to even 50% of our returning travellers (though we could probably cover much more), we could still significantly reduce the chance of the virus entering our borders and communities.

We could make the vaccination approach our new policy, required of every returning traveller yet, create a pathway for travellers to attain exemptions in certain situations.

Even if we applied this approach at just some key locations, the places from where most returning Australians are flying back from, it could already, make a very large impact.

Is it realistic to ask people to wait 4–5 weeks before a flight?

As mentioned in Part II, we are likely to require returning travellers to wait about 4–5 weeks before they could come back home. 3 weeks between jabs, and another week or two on top of that to allow the body to develop its maximum immune response.

That makes one wonder — is it indeed realistic to ask them to wait for so long before a flight?

Honestly, I don’t have enough information regarding the average length of time people are spending overseas, but considering that the government isn’t likely to give you an exemption to leave the country unless you intend to leave for more than a few months, I think that in many cases, this approach should be ok.

But what about when it isn’t? what about cases where people cannot wait this long?

As for cases where people don’t have the luxury of this time, I believe it should be ok still. As discussed above, we do not need to cover everyone to make our approach effective. We could create an exemption pathway for those who do not have 5 weeks on their hands and allow them to return even so. As mentioned above, even if we managed to cover 50% of returning Australians, we would come make some serious impact.

In fact, I believe that we could also create other in-between solutions. For example, we could perhaps require those who do not have 5 weeks prior to their flight, to at least get one of the Pfizer jabs prior to returning home.

Though not as effective, even a single shot of the Pfizer vaccine has shown to be able to provide some immunity. These travellers could then get their second shot while in quarantine back home.

Just throwing around some random numbers here, but if we had 50% of returning travellers vaccinated proper, and another 25% with at least one jab already in their arm, I believe we would be at such a better place, against this pesky Covid thing.

What about non-Australians?

Statistics show that of those arriving in Australia, about 50% are not Australian citizens, permanent residents or such equivalent. What should we do about those?

Well, this requires a two part answer.

First, just as mentioned above, I think it’s ok for us not to get through to everyone. Whatever part of the total number of returning travellers we would be able to cover, we should have a significant impact getting in the way of the virus. Just as for the other exemption cases, we could simply allow them to arrive without being vaccinated and all.

But let’s do better than that.

Let’s include them in our approach. We could simply make the vaccine a requirement to flying to Australia for everyone.

Those who are not Australians could either get access to the vaccines using their home country’s medical systems. And when that isn’t possible, we could even offer them access to our own vaccine allocation, via the same systems we will set-up for returning Australians to use.

Our own vaccines? I hear you say.

But, they are not even Australian.

True — the notion hits some kind of a nationalistic nerve, protecting others, seemingly at the expense of our own, but let’s push beyond that and look more closely.

The overall numbers we would have to cover, are going to be relatively small. Imagine this: 6,000 arrivals/week, of those about 50% are not Australian, and of those, maybe 50% could get access to the vaccines in other ways, leaving us with about a total of 1,500 vaccines that we would provide allocation to non Australians/week. I would recommend a much closer look at these numbers, but you get my drift, it’s not huge.

And to be honest, the numbers should be beside the point. Our aim is to keep Australia Covid-free. If doing this will significantly increase our chance of doing that, it should really outweigh any politics on the matter.

What if people don’t want to?

What about those people who don’t want to get vaccinated?

Whether for this reason or another.

It might be vaccine hesitancy, it might be fear of vaccinating while pregnant, it might be pure anti-vaxxer rhetoric (the most frustrating kind). Whatever the reason is, could we really make it a requirement to be vaccinated? Could and should we force these people to vaccinate, as a compulsory requirement to come back home?

Certainly — no.

From an ethical perspective, a political one, a practical one, you name it; it just does not worth the headache.

Let’s create an exemption pathway for those who feel strongly against getting vaccinated.

Australians are pretty open to vaccines, and we are really good at following guidelines.

I don’t think we are going to lose too many people this way.


Is it going to be ethical to vaccinate these people first?

A question that is likely to emerge soon enough is whether it’s right to vaccinate returning travellers before we vaccinate everyone else. Or at least whether we should keep them so high-up on the priority list.

These returning travellers might be young and healthy and given any other circumstance, they would likely be a the end of the line to get vaccinated, let alone a Pfizer one.

My answer to this is yes, it’s still going to be alright ethically. Now let me try and convince you why.

First, may I suggest that vaccinating those most at risk, and those flying back home, shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. We don’t have so many Australians arriving home every day, nor every week. We should be able to have enough Pfizer doses to vaccinate our at-risk communities, our quarantine, health and boarder workers — as well as — our returning travellers.

Secondly, while those arriving are not considered — ‘at risk’we shouldn’t approach them in the same way we would if they weren’t coming back from overseas.

The main way the virus is going to enter the Australian community is is via returning travellers.

If we vaccinate them and reduce their chances of carrying and transmitting the virus we would significantly reduce the risk of the virus entering our community in the first place.

By doing this we be protecting our at risk communities even more so.

It would be unethical for us not to consider this approach

So does that mean we don’t need hotel quarantine?

Nope, it does not mean that.

I am by no means suggesting that vaccinating returning travellers would replace the need for hotel quarantine. Hotel quarantine has been our first line of defence against the virus, and all in all, it has done an excellent job — big green tick, a socially distanced high-give and a hip hip hooray.

I wouldn’t dream of getting rid of it anytime soon.

Moreover, though the science is mounting in favour of vaccines’s ability to reduce transmission, we are not likely to see it bringing it down to zero. A percentage of those vaccinated would still able to catch the virus and they could still infect others as a result.

Hotel quarantine has been an effective line of defence and should be kept in place. Vaccinating returning travellers prior to arrival could simply help the quarantine approach to be even more effective.

And to top it up with a self contradiction — vaccinating return travellers could eventually lead to a softer approach to quarantine. It could open the door to the possibility of a shorter period and possibly quarantining at home. But I’m not suggesting this yet, nor am I exploring it in here. You will have to wait for Part IV for that.

More questions will come

The article at hand was intended to try answer to some of the key challenges that people may bring up with regards to the approach. But, as mentioned earlier in the series, this is but an initial crack at the topic.

There are going to be many other challenges, questions and critique raised in response. Attempting to answer to these should bring us closer to working out whether this approach could work, and help us develop a better version of it.

Have other challenges in mind? Leave it in the comments below and I will try and answer and include them in a future edit.

Additional benefits

Like what you are reading and keen to read more? Want to find out even more benefits that this approach could bring about? Somehow not sick of me yet? Read on to Part IV- Even more good things (coming soon).




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Shay Koren

Shay Koren

Strategic Designer - writing about design, product, innovation, tech, culture and everything in between.

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