Australia’s COVID-19 tests for travellers from China, Hong Kong and Macau delay family reunions

Australia’s COVID-19 tests for travellers from China, Hong Kong and Macau delay family reunions
  • COVID-19 testing requirements for those coming to Australia from China is putting some people off the thought of travel.
  • Some say the measures targeting China, Hong Kong and Macao is unfair.
  • The World Health Organisation has said “in the absence of comprehensive information” from China, testing requirements were “understandable.”
Yolanda Sun hasn’t seen her parents — who live in China — since before the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020.
She was set to reunite with them next week — nearly three years since Australia’s international borders were slammed shut.
Now, Ms Sun said any family reunion was likely to be delayed even longer after Australia imposed new entry requirements for travellers arriving from China, Hong Kong and Macau.
China abandoned its zero-COVID policy in early December 2022 after nearly three years of restrictions, and burgeoning protests and unrest — an unlikely scene under President Xi Jinping’s rule.

China will open its borders to international arrivals from 8 January — scrapping mandatory COVID-19 quarantine — with the decision welcomed by the Chinese diaspora around the world, including in Australia, particularly ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday period.

But Ms Sun — who lives in Melbourne — says the Australian government’s requirement for those arriving from China, Hong Kong and Macau to return within 48 hours of departure from Thursday was discriminatory.
“The new rules or policy come all of a sudden, I’m not sure what exactly the rules are … so in this situation I’d not recommend my parents come to Australia now,” Ms Sun said.
The Australian government is yet to provide details on the type of COVID-19 tests required.

“If they can hold a RAT test that could be easier and get enough equipment from the pharmacy, but if they need to do PCR testing they might need to go through the hospital or they’ll need to pre-book it,” Ms Sun said.

A woman's standing on a grass embankment by water.

Yolanda Sun is hesitant about having her parents come to visit Australia now restrictions on travellers from China have been announced. Source: SBS News

“Hospitals are under intense pressure as far as I know.”

Ms Sun said providing a negative test 48 hours before departure could also prove tricky for travellers who may take longer to arrive in Australia, due to transit times.
While she was aware of a high COVID-19 caseload in China, she said the Australian government’s decision was unfair.
“If they say it is a new variant, it is a worldwide variant, it has not originated from China, so I don’t think the new special restrictions should be made just because of the large number of travellers from China,” Ms Sun said.

“Based on what I know, some of the news they are exaggerating the negative news from China.”

‘I really don’t want to go back into lockdown’

Not everyone is sceptical of the policy change. Ms Ng is a Hong Kong-Australian currently visiting the former British colony, and plans to return to Australia in mid-January.
“I returned to Hong Kong on the 18th of last month … I also agree with the new policy,” she said.
“This is a guarantee for Australian nationals. So detection is very important to me.”
Ms Ng said she had to provide evidence of a negative COVID test before boarding a plane bound for Hong Kong on 18 December, and then return a negative PCR test after she landed at Hong Kong International Airport.

“Hong Kong will also protect local citizens … Why Australia can’t protect Australians the same way?” she said.

Ms Ng said the Australian government should go one step further and have travellers from China, Hong Kong and Macau test negative on arrival at an Australian airport.
“The most worrying thing is the outbreak of new variants in Australia … that would be miserable. The economy is just getting better. I really don’t want to go back into lockdown again.”
The mood was tense in Hong Kong following the announcement of China’s borders reopening on 8 January, which would see free movement by Chinese nationals into the city.

“Hong Kong has no testing for Chinese entry. I believe that many confirmed cases will come to Hong Kong and spread widely,” she said.

Woman wearing a mask.

Ms Ng is a Hong Kong-Australian who says the Australian government is right to ask travellers from China, Hong Kong and Macao to return a negative COVID-19 test. Source: Supplied

“It seems that after opening on the 8th, many of my friends in Hong Kong said to reduce the number of gatherings … After the 8th, I will not go to crowded places.”

Australian government defends policy

Australia is among over a dozen countries that have announced travel restrictions on China as speculation continues over the true number of deaths and infections.
Health Minister Mark Butler said it was a “modest decision” to ensure that Australian health officials were able to track any emerging variants that could arise from China.
“We are committed to making sure that we can continue to travel overseas, continue the personal and economic benefits that come from having open borders,” he told ABC on Monday.

“We just want to make sure we do that in a way that has the maximum information in a timely way that we need to protect Australians.”

Staff in PPE behind a counter work while patients lay in beds in the background.

Questions are being asked about the accuracy of China’s data on COVID-19 cases detected in the country. Source: Getty / Future Publishing

Since China ditched its zero-COVID policy in early December, the healthcare system has seemingly buckled under the pressure of infections experienced around the country.

Hospitals have seen a surge in COVID-19-related admissions and unverified reports have shown crematoriums struggling to keep up with demand.

‘How can we complain about countries like China?’

The World Health Organization has expressed concern that China’s authorities aren’t releasing its full data on infections and real-time genome sequencing.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter that “in the absence of comprehensive information” from China, it was “understandable” for countries to make decisions they believe will ensure their populations are safe.
But Adrian Esterman, the chair of epidemiology at the University of South Australia, accused the government of making a decision that was political and not based on public health measures.
Australians who test positive for COVID-19 no longer have to isolate and there are no testing requirements for travellers coming into the country.
“I’m not sure that this mandatory testing is actually going to help the situation in any way, apart from demonising China and assuaging the general public,” he said.
“Our data in Australia is pretty inaccurate? How can we complain about countries like China?” he said.
Professor Esterman also said Australian officials have access to data from other countries that are undergoing genomic sequencing from Chinese travellers, in order to detect any possible subvariants that emerged in China.

Chinese Australian Forum president Simon Chan said it was a sensible decision from the federal government to ensure that everyone was kept safe leading into Lunar New Year period.

A crowded street with lanterns hanging in the air.

Sydney’s Lunar New Year events are one of the biggest such celebrations outside of Asia. Source: Getty / Anadolu Agency

“One problem is, because we don’t know the extent of how bad it is in terms of the COVID cases, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take that precaution before they come,” Mr Chan said.

He said while he appreciates the scepticism from health experts like Professor Esterman, he is hopeful it is a temporary solution that won’t stop Chinese people from travelling to Australia.

“We can always change it again later if things seem to be okay.”