Since 1 February 2020, based on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the Australian Government has implemented travel restrictions and exemptions designed to curb the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in Australia while allowing travel into and out of Australia to continue for essential reasons.
The Department and Australian Border Force (ABF) jointly manage these restrictions, which operate in conjunction with quarantine arrangements managed by state and territory governments. Staff resources have been redirected to activities that support the Government’s response to the pandemic, including supporting the ABF Commissioner’s consideration of requests for travel restriction exemptions.
The pandemic and related travel restrictions significantly reduced demand for most visas. In 2020-21, the number of non-humanitarian visa applications lodged fell by nearly 6 million, or 81 per cent compared to the previous year (see Figure 1). Temporary visa activity began to increase in November and December 2021 following the announcement of the second stage of the Government’s border re-opening plans, but remained below pre-COVID levels.
As announced by the Prime Minister on Monday 7 February, Australia will reopen to all fully vaccinated visa holders, welcoming the return of tourists, business travellers, and other visitors from 21 February 2022.
The Government has introduced a large number of temporary visa arrangements in response to COVID-19. These arrangements - to support public health measures, protect the health of the community, safeguard jobs for Australians, support critical sectors, and assist with economic recovery - include:
- the creation of a COVID-19 Pandemic event visa through the Subclass 408 (Temporary Activity) visa to assist to regularise the visa status of individuals in Australia working in critical sectors such as health, aged and disability care, childcare, agriculture and food processing and those who have no other visa options and are unable to depart Australia due to COVID-19 travel limitations
- the introduction of the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) to facilitate the migration of people with critical skills through employer sponsored visa programs, from both within Australia and overseas
- allowing expanded eligibility for permanent residence for certain temporary skilled visa holders who have worked in Australia through the pandemic who have an occupation on the Short-term Skilled Occupation List (STSOL), or who no longer meet the age requirements for the permanent Employer Nomination Scheme
- strengthened labour market testing for employer sponsored visa applications
- relaxation of the 40 hours per fortnight working hours for international students, initially for those working in critical sectors and extended to all student visa holders on 13 January 2022
- exempting Working Holiday Makers from the six month work limitation with one employer
- incentivising students and work and holiday makers to bring forward their travel by providing refunds of the visa application charge if they arrive in Australia within a specified period. For students, this is 19 January 2022 to 19 March 2022, and for working holiday makers, 19 January 2022 to 19 April 2022.
Recent measures to support existing visa holders impacted by COVID-19 include:
- extending the visas of eligible Temporary Graduate visa holders in Australia to 30 September 2022, and allowing Temporary Graduate visa holders overseas to apply for a replacement visa if they have been unable to travel to Australia
- on 29 October 2021, extending the visas of certain Prospective Marriage visa holders outside Australia to 31 December 2022. Visa application charge refunds have also been made available to certain Prospective Marriage visa holders impacted by COVID-19 related travel restrictions.
The Government has also responded to the specific impacts of COVID-19 on regional Australia. In addition to measures outlined in previous editions of this paper, the Skilled Regional provisional visas (subclasses 489, 491 & 494) of holders who have been adversely affected by COVID-19 related travel restrictions will be extended.
Within Australia, 60 per cent of non-humanitarian visa processing staff capacity has been redirected to COVID-19 related critical functions including COVID-19 border measures, visa processing to support the Government’s COVID-19 priorities or activities to support COVID-19 recovery. This includes the transfer of approximately 155 staff from visa processing and border management roles to travel exemption processing.
As Australia’s international borders re-open, temporary and permanent migration will play a critical role in our economic recovery from the pandemic with migrants filling growing skill and labour shortages in metropolitan and regional Australia and rebuilding important sectors such as international education and tourism. Australia will face international competition to attract and retain migrants, particularly global talent and skilled workers, as other countries also seek to rebuild their economies and offset the population challenge of an ageing domestic population.