International students and skilled workers will be allowed exemption-free travel to Australia from next week, in what the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has hailed a “major milestone” for the country returning to normal.
From 1 December, travel exemptions will no longer be required for fully vaccinated eligible visa holders – including students, skilled workers, and those on humanitarian, working holiday and family visas – for the first time since borders closed in early 2020.
A travel bubble operating for Singapore will also extend to Japan and South Korea, allowing quarantine-free travel for these citizens, including tourists, subject to a negative Covid test before departure.
Government figures show that there are about 235,000 eligible visa holders who would be free to travel to Australia under the eased restrictions, including 162,000 international students.
The move comes amid sustained calls from employment groups and the university sector to restart Australia’s temporary migration program, which many sectors have become reliant upon to meet skills shortages.
Morrison said the announcement would allow Australia to take full advantage of the economic recovery as states emerged from the pandemic, with workers “desperately needed” across the country.
“It is another win for Australians who have got vaccinated, it’s another win for Australians who want to see Australia to return to some form of the normality that we once knew pre this pandemic,” he said.
“The return of skilled workers and students to Australia is a major milestone in our pathway back. It’s a major milestone about what Australians have been able to achieve and enable us to do.”
Morrison hailed the country’s “extraordinary” vaccination rate, with an 85% full vaccination rate for those older than 16, and 91.5% having had one dose.
While Monday’s announcement will ease travel restrictions for a large number of visa classes, the government has not yet announced when an estimated one million tourists wanting to travel to Australia will be allowed the same access.
“We will now monitor how we move to this next stage,” Morrison said.
“I think Australians are very keen to see us take this step-by-step approach. They’ve been through a lot and have sacrificed a lot to ensure that we can open safely so we can stay safely open, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
The home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, said she expected about 200,000 visa holders to arrive in coming months who would be subject to the quarantine arrangements of the states, but said the government was “actively looking to bring as many people into Australia as soon as we possibly can”.
The prime minister said the latest easing of restrictions was an example of “getting government out of people’s lives”, amid a furious debate about the merits of “freedom” protests across the country.
Morrison has come under fire for appearing to sympathise with those rallying over the past week, with Labor accusing him of “pandering to extremists” by saying he understood their concerns.
When challenged on his stance after he previously endorsed state-imposed lockdowns and resisted calls from the NSW premier Dominic Perrottet to ease restrictions earlier, Morrison said that the federal government had needed to “make decisions that had to reach into people’s lives”.
“You’ve got to deal with the situation as you find it, and the situation when you have a pandemic raging through when people’s lives are at risk, well you have to take decisions to protect those lives,” Morrison said.
“As the circumstances change, then it’s time for us to move back, which is what the national plan was designed to do.
“So I just don’t buy this binary proposition that somehow you’re either for or against this at all points in the cycle. Times change over that (cycle), circumstances change, and governments that are interested in balanced, practicable, sensible decisions, will make them, in the moment, with the circumstances they have to face.”
He said there were extremes at both sides of the debate, but the vast majority of Australians were “just looking for people to just make sensible decisions”.
Morrison also brushed off government divisions over vaccine mandates after a Senate vote on Monday morning resulted in five government senators crossing the floor to support Pauline Hanson’s vaccine discrimination bill.
“In the Liberal party and the National party, we don’t run it as an autocracy, we don’t kick people out of our party if they happen, from time to time, to disagree on an issue on which they feel strongly,’’ he said.
“I respect the fact that individual members from time to time will express a view and they’ll vote accordingly and that is what has happened today.
“We’re big parties, we can deal with any differences of views that occur from time to time.’’