By Colin Packham and Renju Jose
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will lift more internal state border restrictions in a boost for tourism as new coronavirus infections slow to a trickle, while the first vaccines could be available in March, a government minister said on Tuesday.
Queensland state, a popular holiday destination, will allow visitors next week from the country's two most populous states, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, after closing its borders in August.
NSW has since notched a month without any COVID-19 cases where the source is unknown and restrictions on arrivals from Sydney will be eased on Dec. 1, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said.
Residents of Victoria, previously the country's coronavirus hotspot, will also be welcomed if the state has no new cases on Wednesday, which would mark 26 days without community transmission.
"Queensland is good to go," Palaszczuk told reporters in Brisbane.
NSW and Victoria opened their border on Monday, while the South Australia-Victorian border opens fully next week, in welcome news for local airline companies, Qantas Airways and Virgin Australia.
Qantas said it would run more than 1,200 return flights from Victoria and NSW into Queensland in the run-up to Christmas.
The moves will please Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has pushed state leaders to relax some curbs to help revive an economy that shrank 7% in the three months to end-June, the most since records began in 1959.
Looking further out, Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia - which has agreed to buy nearly 34 million doses of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine - is increasingly confident it can complete a vaccination programme after the release of preliminary trial results.
"Our vaccine timeline is beginning to strengthen. The news from overseas is that we are on track for first vaccines in March," Hunt told reporters in Sydney.
AstraZeneca said its COVID-19 vaccine, cheaper to make, easier to distribute and faster to scale-up than its rivals, could be as much as 90% effective.
Australia has reported more than 27,800 cases of COVID-19 and 907 deaths since the pandemic began, but estimates there are fewer than 100 active COVID-19 cases remaining, mostly people in hotel quarantine.
Victoria said on Tuesday it had zero active cases for the first time in more than eight months following a strict lockdown after daily infections peaked at more than 700 in early August.
Qantas, meanwhile, said it would insist in future that international travellers have a COVID-19 vaccination before they fly, describing the move as "a necessity".
"We are looking at changing our terms and conditions to say, for international travellers, that we will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft," Chief Executive Alan Joyce told broadcaster Channel Nine.
That approach may not be a global model because it would bar some people from travelling, the head of airline body IATA said. Testing was "more critical to reopening borders than the vaccine", Alexandre de Juniac told Reuters.
Lufthansa and Ryanair also said they did not expect any vaccine requirement, with the low-cost carrier's CEO Michael O'Leary citing EU free movement rules.
Australia closed its international borders in March and currently requires returning travellers from overseas to quarantine for two weeks.
(Reporting by Colin Packham and Renju Jose; Additional reporting by Laurence Frost in Paris; Editing by Richard Pullin, Michael Perry and Alex Richardson)