Scott Morrison has confirmed Australia will move “very cautiously” to reopen quarantine-free travel with a “handful” of countries, raising the prospect Europe and the United States will be excluded until 2022 unless a Covid vaccine is available.

Morrison made the comments at a doorstop in Redbank, campaigning with Queensland’s Liberal National party leader, Deb Frecklington, and targeting the Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk over the state’s reluctance to remove its state border travel ban.

On Sunday the federal tourism minister, Simon Birmingham, said that moves to establish quarantine-free travel with low-risk countries such as New Zealand “can’t be done at the expense of our health and economic strength at home”.

“The prospects of opening up widespread travel with higher risk countries will remain very reliant on effective vaccination or other major breakthroughs in the management of Covid,” he told the Sun Herald.

The comments were widely interpreted to mean travel to and from Europe and the United States will continue to be subject to the compulsory two-week quarantine period, which makes travel uneconomical except for longer stays such as international students.

Morrison told reporters New Zealand would be the “first step” and very soon New Zealanders “will be able to come to New South Wales, the ACT, and the Northern Territory”.

“The reason they won’t be able to come to Queensland is there is still a requirement for a two-week quarantine in Queensland,” he said, explaining that allowing international trips to Queensland would prevent Australians returning home due to the cap on hotel quarantine.

“When that is no longer necessary – great – I think that will be tremendous for the Queensland tourism industry.”

Morrison said that after New Zealand, Australia was looking to establish travel bubbles with Pacific nations, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

“There are countries that have performed well on the health front and Australia and those countries are one of a handful that have had the same level of success.”

“But we have to go cautiously on this, very, very cautiously. Covid-19 hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s still there – it’s no less aggressive today than it was six months ago. We need to keep the habit of Covid-safe behaviours.”

Despite advocating use of Australia’s border to keep coronavirus out, Morrison pivoted to attacking Queensland for not reopening to states that still have community transmission, such as New South Wales.

“Borders don’t protect you from the virus, the virus moves,” Morrison said.

“If infections are created here in Queensland … it is the testing and tracing regimes and the social distancing and other Covid-safe behaviours that are really necessary – so we’ve got to keep our guard up.

“We only want borders to be there as long as they have to be there, and only for medical reasons.”

While New Zealanders will be able to travel to Australia without quarantine, a decision about Australians crossing the Tasman on the same terms is not likely before the New Zealand election on Saturday.

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