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Morrison hints at border easing, but warns of 1000 infections per week

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Queensland’s experience with sick travellers from Papua New Guinea may be a taste of things to come for Australia.

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Five new cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Queensland overnight, all involving travellers from PNG, which is in the grip of an epidemic. Queensland has imported almost 100 cases from PNG so far, and had to rearrange hospital services – and at one point restrict flights – just to give them beds.

Deputy Premier Steven Miles on Friday said the latest cases highlighted the need for Queenslanders to be vaccinated as soon as possible, particularly those on the Torres Strait islands where cross-border travel by boat is normally allowed for local residents.

“There are islands in the Torres Strait where you can see PNG from their beaches,” Miles said.

Queensland Health halted the rollout of AstraZeneca vaccine on the islands on advice that there is a blood clot risk for people aged under 50. The move affected local confidence in the vaccine, and arrangements are now being made for Pfizer vaccines to be used for as-yet unvaccinated residents.

Health Minister Yvette D’Ath held talks on Friday on Thursday Island, where a specialist freezer will be sent to store Pfizer vaccines whenever they arrive.

Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service Executive Director of Medical Services Dr Tony Brown said consultation would continue with the community.

“Everyone who has had a first dose of AstraZeneca without any adverse effects will be offered a second dose of the same vaccine,” Brown said.

“We will not be offering Pfizer to community members who have already had a dose of AstraZeneca.”

While vaccinations remain vital to reopening international borders, it is still unclear how that would happen. Australia is still regrouping after the AstraZeneca setback.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to prepare Australians for a post-vaccination, open borders world where quarantine and health services would no longer have the luxury of days with no new cases.

“If we were to lift the borders and people were to come, then you would see those cases increase,” Morrison told 6PR radio.

“Australians would have to become used to dealing with a thousand cases a week or more.”

With airlines keen to open borders as soon as possible, Morrison has flagged vaccinated Australians being allowed to travel and then quarantine at home upon their return.

He suggested the States would need to support new risk levels – largely managed by them – but Miles said it did not help that the vaccination rollout had been delayed beyond 2021.

“I thought we’d be back to a relative normal by the end of this year,” said Miles, the former Queensland health minister.

Miles urged Queenslanders to listen to health advice and get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Two travellers with the more contagious UK variant sparked two separate outbreaks, involving the quarantine Hotel Grand Chancellor and Princess Alexandra Hospital, that led greater Brisbane into a recent lockdown.

Governments have been unable to further Queensland’s proposal for a self-contained, purpose-built quarantine facility serviced by Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport.

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