The Department of Home Affairs is planning to digitise key information on international travellers arriving into Australia, including whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
The federal budget, handed down earlier this month, revealed that the government expects the international border to remain closed until June 2022.
In the meantime, Home Affairs is examining how Australia’s international border can be reopened in a graduated way, according to department secretary Mike Pezzullo.
“The gradual removal of restrictions on Australians’ ability to travel internationally at scale, when conditions allow, will require significant preparation, including by way of collaboration across Australian government departments and agencies, and with states and territories, airlines, airports and international partners,” he said in his opening statement to Senate Estimates on Monday.
The government began a tender process for a digital permit processing capability last October, which Pezzullo said would ‘modernise and streamline’ the delivery of services such as visas, permits, licences, and identity documents.
The capability will be used for Digital Passenger Declarations (DPD) — digitised versions of the Incoming Passenger Card and the current Australian Traveller Declaration. Pezzullo said the DPD would provide ‘biometrically-anchored and digitally-verified’ information on travel, health and vaccine status.
“Verified data will be able to be securely shared with state and territory public health authorities. The DPD will have the capability to validate the vaccination status of people who have been vaccinated in Australia when they return from overseas,” he said.
“At the appropriate time, subject to public health advice, this could support Australians’ ability to travel without the need for 14 days quarantine on return, including by providing additional assurance to support the future delivery of potential alternatives to hotel quarantine.”
To reduce the risk of fake and fraudulent vaccine certificates, Home Affairs is also working with other countries and the aviation industry to explore vaccine certification solutions, such as mechanisms to recognise international immunisation certificates.
“Subject to these international discussions and public health advice, these critical pieces of information could be collected, verified and shared through the DPD,” Pezzullo said.
Australia’s current border arrangements would not be sustainable once international travel at scale is up and running, Pezzullo warned. He said Home Affairs has been developing ‘biosecure border arrangements across the travel continuum’, which includes checking individuals’ visa, health status, and travel history prior to their departure.
Other arrangements include working with check-in authorities at overseas airports where flights leave for Australia; providing states and territories with passenger information that can support quarantine and contact tracing; working with airlines to monitor health in-flight; and supporting Australian airports to establish ‘green’ and ‘red’ zones to facilitate safe movement within the airport.
The secretary noted that discussions on travel pathways with Singapore and in the Pacific are ongoing, but the commencement of any travel would be based on health advice.
The amount of daily arrivals coming into Australia from overseas is currently sitting at around 2% of pre-COVID levels.