CHO advised against testing travellers from China

Australia’s chief medical officer advised against pre-flight testing of travellers from China for COVID before the measures were introduced, it has been revealed.

Chief medical officer Paul Kelly told the federal government he saw no need to impose the extra restrictions on incoming China flights.

Professor Kelly’s advice was released late Monday and dated December 31, the day before the government announced the testing rules.

The material published by the health department shows Australian health authorities were confident with domestic vaccination rates and local surveillance systems.

As a result, there was a “strong consensus that implementation of any restrictions to travel from China at this time” would be inconsistent with the national approach to the management of COVID.

“While I do not believe that there is a sufficient public health rationale for imposing restrictions on travellers from China or any other country with a high burden of COVID-19 cases at present, I recommend consideration be given to enhancing Australia’s existing surveillance capabilities with a particular emphasis on international arrivals,” Professor Kelly said in his advice.

He suggested Australia beef up its surveillance of arrivals by implementing an aircraft wastewater testing program and voluntary sampling of arrivals.

Australia could also increase testing of domestic wastewater and follow-up persons who test positive for COVID after travelling overseas in the prior two weeks.

Under arrangements announced by Health Minister Mark Butler at the weekend, travellers from China to Australia must return a negative COVID test within 48 hours of departure from January 5.

The decision came after Beijing said in December it would scrap strict “zero-COVID” measures in favour of a policy of living with the virus.

A wave of infections has since erupted across China after borders had been all but shut for three years amid a strict regime of lockdowns and relentless testing.

Mr Butler said he welcomed China’s decision to re-open its borders and allow people to travel again, with a spike in travellers to Australia expected.

“I know that hundreds of thousands of Australians of Chinese descent … are particularly looking forward to the opportunity to reunite with family and friends,” he said on Monday.

“This is a very positive development, but we need to ensure that we have the information we need to protect the health of Australians.”

Professor Kelly acknowledged in his advice to the government that accurate COVID surveillance data from China was scant.

But he also noted experts in China were predicting three winter waves of COVID transmission. The current event is expected to run until mid-January, followed by two more in late January and late February to early March.

Infectious disease expert Robert Booy agreed with the government’s decision, saying Mr Butler was correct to say better surveillance was needed.

“The potential for a new subvariant is truly there in China, with tens of millions getting infected,” Professor Booy told Seven’s Sunrise.

“You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. They’ve made a reasonable choice.”

Opposition assistant health spokeswoman Melissa McIntosh questioned why the government would pull the trigger without the health advice recommending to do so.

“Why would you have the chief medical officer say one thing, and the government ignore that and do another?” she told ABC TV.

Mr Butler has said that while there was no evidence of variants emerging in China, the government was taking a cautious approach.

“There’s no imminent public health threat and we’re very well positioned right now in the fight against COVID here in Australia,” he said on Monday.

The Business Council of Australia has warned against any moves to impose border restrictions.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers said he understood the concerns of business and was continuing to assess the economic impacts.

“Business leaders want us to strike the best balance between managing the health aspects of COVID-19 and making sure we can keep the wheels of the economy turning,” he said.

Dr Chalmers said he was concerned about strains on supply chains due to the outbreak in China.

The US, Britain, France, India, Japan, Spain and South Korea have all imposed similar testing measures on arrivals from China


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