The federal and state governments over the weekend announced South Australia would be the first place in the country to welcome back foreign students as a test run for a broader return nationally.
International students, who collectively inject more than $1.9 billion into SA’s economy each year, have been locked out of the state since March due to coronavirus-prompted border closures.
Their absence has left multi-million dollar holes in the budgets of all three of South Australia’s main universities, prompting considerations of staff cuts and halting capital works projects.
Under the federal-led pilot, flights from Singapore would start sending up to 300 South-East Asian students to Adelaide from early September.
The universities or students themselves would be required to pay for the flights and the mandatory 14 days of quarantine at medi-hotels.
The students would also be forced to get tested on days one and 12 of quarantine, similar to the regime already in place for people returning to South Australia on repatriation flights.
Federal Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning the pilot had been “carefully” considered by health officials, with the Government “completely confident” that public safety would not be compromised.
He said there was “no shortcut being given to these international students” to study in Australia, following criticism some Australian citizens have been prevented from returning home from overseas due to restricted availability on repatriation flights.
“There are some criticisms I know because of the difficulties that returning Australians are having getting back into Australia and the caps that some states have put in place on the numbers of people they can process into those states,” Birmingham said.
“The international aviation sector is highly volatile right now with routes and flight arrangements changing at very short notice.
“The expectation is that these (international students) will be seeking to book seats on flights like anybody else in terms of trying to get in.
“My understanding and advice is that South Australia has never hit its cap in terms of the number of people they think they can handle in quarantine… so in that sense South Australia is a good market to do this in.”
Currently, only Australian residents or citizens are allowed to travel into the country, with the international students to be granted an exemption by the Government.
South Australia’s deputy chief public health officer Dr Michael Cusack today threw his support behind the pilot, telling ABC Radio Adelaide it would help “get the economy sort of restarted as soon as possible”.
“We’ve been having international arrivals now for some months and we have coped well with them and we’ve obviously ensured that we’ve had adequate hotel capacity and the arrangements in the hotels have been very tight indeed, so we are confident in respect to how we can manage the students returning,” he said.
“Obviously, as students are very important to the local economy in South Australia, both in terms of education but also in the broader economy, and with the effects of lockdown we’re very keen to get the economy sort of restarted as soon as possible.”
But the state Opposition today questioned whether allowing international students into SA would compromise the state’s strict border controls.
“There are many families in South Australia who haven’t seen loved ones, who haven’t seen people who have cancer or having new babies interstate and they’re taking that on the chin and making those tough sacrifices to keep our state in the good situation we’re in now,” Shadow Health Minister Chris Picton said.
“We now have a situation where international students can come into South Australia but obviously if you’re from another state… you wouldn’t even be allowed to come into hotel quarantine to resume your university study here in South Australia.
“Why has this been given the priority?”
Picton also called on the State Government to provide more emergency financial support to international students studying in South Australia to ease pressure on charities.
South Australia’s most recent positive coronavirus case – a traveller from India who returned to South Australia on a repatriation flight on August 4 – returned a positive test on day 12 of his quarantine.
The case, reported yesterday, has sparked concerns that South Australia’s mandated quarantine period of 14 days is not long enough.
Cusack said the 14 day period was “internationally accepted”, with “most” other countries following the same quarantine requirement.
“Alongside just having quarantine, we’ve put in the day one and the day 12 test just to give that extra piece of assurance that even, obviously if someone has very few symptoms as in this case, that we still pick up someone who may be shedding the virus,” he said.
“I think we’ve got the balance just right.”
It comes as the school at the centre of South Australia’s most recent coronavirus cluster – Thebarton Senior College – reopened today.
Five COVID-19 cases were linked to Thebarton Senior College in early August, forcing the school’s closure and all students and staff into self-isolation or hotel quarantine, where they reported feeling stressed and concerned about their wellbeing.
The last of more than 1400 people linked to the Thebarton cluster walked free on Saturday after completing 14 days of isolation.
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