The Department of Home Affairs has hit the brakes on plans to introduce its controversial digital visa system pending decisions to be made by government on how it moves forward with opening the country's borders in the post-Covid world.
The visa processing system, referred to internally as a permissions capability, would streamline the department's processes, first creating a digital replacement for the incoming passenger card and later allowing for online visa applications.
The plan was revived in October 2020 after being ditched earlier in the year and a contract was expected to be issued to a supplier for its build by the end of March 2021.
But Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo told a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday evening a contract had still not been issued due to challenges caused by COVID-19.
He added the department had been told to pace itself so it could consider how to integrate health data from foreign visitors in order to stop Covid cases, or unvaccinated travellers, from reaching the country once borders open.
"We're grappling with the jigsaw puzzle of how does one - as you open a border at scale and the government's budget and planning assumption is that that will not occur before the middle of next year - how do you ensure that you've got a robust digital signature of someone's health status before they get on the plane?" Mr Pezzullo said.
"In a Covid world, that is an absolute recipe to bring Covid in at scale.
"The challenge here, and it'll take the best part of six to 12 months as I said in my opening statement and the government's made no final decisions about what its requirements are going to be based on health advice, is how do you securely, proportionately and with privacy ingest health data before travel occurs?
"It's quite a complex and technically difficult challenge."
Mr Pezzullo told senators previously he was expecting the federal government's digital passenger declaration to be trialled by early next year in line with budget and planning expectations.
"The DPD will have the capability to validate the vaccination status of people who have been vaccinated in Australia when they return from overseas," he said on Monday.
"At the appropriate time, subject to public health advice, this could support Australians' ability to travel without the need for 14 days quarantine on return."
Mr Pezzullo said health data would be securely shared with state public health authorities.
"We're going to have to bake in and build in health information into that declaration. There's no point being told that an hour or two out from landing," he said.
The new system, Mr Pezzullo theorised, could also recognise international vaccination certificates, both digital or in other forms.
"This will help to mitigate the risks posed by the use of fake or fraudulent vaccination certificates," Mr Pezzullo said.
The Australian Border Force was dealing with close to 50 million passenger movements a year before borders closed but the number is now about 2 per cent of that.
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