Controlling borders has been a feature of Australia’s COVID-19 strategy since the very beginning of the pandemic. Remember that early decision to stop flights from China?
It’s no surprise that as the Delta variant spreads through NSW, the ACT and Victoria the issue has roared back into the spotlight.
With NSW about to enter its 11th week of lockdown, and Victorians digging deep as they juggle lockdown number six, Western Australia and Queensland are rebelling against the federal government’s four-phase plan to open the country.
And the clash of views is getting heated.
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How have border closures worked?
During the past 18 months Australia’s states and territories have displayed almost unprecedented independence as they respond to the needs of their populations.
And despite the national COVID exit strategy that premiers signed at the end of July it appears the states are not afraid to go it alone if they feel that national strategy is no longer in the best interests of their constituents.
Paul Williams, a political scientist from Griffith University, says the past 18 months have transformed Australia’s Federation as we have grown to understand it, taking back power from the Commonwealth at a rate not seen since the 1920s.
“With every passing decade the Commonwealth has accrued more power and this is really a significant slowing of that process where the states have found new powers,” he says, referring to the overturning of Section 51 of the Constitution to allow the States quarantine powers.
What is the national plan?
At the end of July Scott Morrison announced a four-step plan to reopen Australia in line with advice from the Doherty Institute that modelled community health risks at different rates of vaccination.
At that time Australia was in Phase A, and we still are but sufficient progress has been made for Morrison to begin preparing citizens, and the states, to level up.
The PM noted this week that “there isn’t a common COVID position across the country … but the place we’re heading to is the same.”
NSW and Victoria are on board. The prospect of looser restrictions is proving the sweetener needed to encourage residents of those states to book vaccinations and in NSW, the opening up target of 70 per cent is within sight for the first time.
Phase B of the federal government’s plan will include an aim to end lockdowns and open borders to more returning travellers when double vaccination rates hit 70 per cent. In NSW that milestone is expected to be reached at the end of October.
Phase C is triggered when double vaccination reaches 80 per cent. Inoculated Australians would be exempt from travel restrictions and lockdowns would only need to be “highly targeted”.
Phase D continues to be held up as our dream scenario when plentiful effective vaccines are available and variant-proof booster shots mean we can be close to out pre-2020 lives with an annual or six monthly top up jab to keep the virus at bay.
So what’s the problem with the plan?
Some states say the modelling was completed before the latest outbreak and that needs to be taken into account.
Moving through the plan is based around hitting certain metrics — 70 and 80 per cent of Australians fully vaccinated.
But as we know, there could be months between the first states — likely ACT, Tasmania and NSW — reaching those targets and the last two states — Queensland and Western Australia as of now.
Morrison has warned the states that those that “aren’t locking others out” will be “able to receive more and more” concessions for their populations such as travel and home quarantine.
WA Premier Mark McGowan countered that “just because the NSW Government has made a mess of it, doesn’t mean the rest of us should have to suffer”.
On Friday, the Prime Minister went further, when he was asked whether or not he could foresee a situation where a state such as NSW was allowed to start international travel again if other states were still reluctant to open their international borders. His simple answer was yes — the national plan allows for it.
So where does each state stand on opening up?
NSW’s plan to open up
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is an advocate of “living with the virus” and is spruiking her state’s vaccination program which has beaten the goals she announced at the beginning of the current outbreak.
NSW – with at least one jab now in the arms of more than 70 per cent of those over 16 – is now in a race to double vaccinate that number so lockdown restrictions can start to be lifted.
It will likely be the first state to hit the plan’s thresholds and is very much on board with opening up as soon as it can.
Victoria’s ‘COVID-zero’ dream over
This is the week that things got real in Victoria with Premier Daniel Andrews conceding the COVID-zero dream was over.
“If we can’t achieve zero, despite our best efforts, how many cases can we tolerate?” Andrews said this week. “It will need to be a low number. It cannot be in the hundreds because it won’t be in the hundreds for long.”
Andrews says Victoria will begin to ease restrictions once 70 per cent of eligible Victorians have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine but in the meantime lockdown will continue and the border with NSW remains closed.
“We’ve got to buy time to allow vaccinations to be undertaken all the while doing this …. very painful difficult work, to keep a lid as much as we can on cases.”
When the time comes to open up, vaccinated Victorians will enjoy special privileges.
ACT aims higher
In the ACT where COVID case numbers are still low but persistent, leader Andrew Barr is looking at higher than 70 per cent vaccination rates before he reopens the territory.
Barr’s strategy is to barrel on with vaccinating residents of the national capital with a goal to keep ahead of the national plan. He hopes that when Australia hits 80 per cent, ACT residents will be 90 per cent vaccinated.
It’s a strategy that bypasses the national plan but beats it at its own game.
Queensland uneasy about reopening
In Queensland, meanwhile, Premier Annastasia Palaszczuk is sticking to her electoral mandate and carrying on with the COVID management strategy that she took to the last election. That means borders stay closed and a zero-COVID strategy.
“We’ve had a double doughnut day today, we’ve got zero cases, our economy is open, we have our Queensland lifestyle, tonight people will go to their cafes and pubs and local restaurants,” she said this week. “This is the sort of Queensland I want, I want to preserve our lifestyle, I want to see Queenslanders being kept safe.”
In an attempt to preserve that lifestyle, Palaszczuk announced this week that she was progressing with a plan for a purpose-built quarantine facility.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Queensland’s hard border closures were shown to be permeable for some. A Queensland truck driver drove into NSW for work before returning to Brisbane and testing positive, sparking testing of close contacts, close monitoring and a second case on Friday night.
And vaccination rates in Queensland remain below those in other states like NSW and Victoria.
Palaszczuk made no secret of her unease with the national COVID re-opening plan and focused her argument on the safety of children. Those under 12 are not included in the vaccination strategy despite hundreds testing positive for the virus during this wave.
“I am asking very simple questions here of Scott Morrison and from the national cabinet,” Palaszczuk said this week. “It is only fair and reasonable we have a constructive debate in this country and rather than picking fights and attacks, let’s have a decent educated conversation and there is nothing wrong about asking decent questions about the safety of families.”
The only hiccup in her argument this week was explaining how the arrival of a plane load of 100 family members and officials of NRL players fitted with the strategy.
“I apologise,” she said. “It was not the right thing to do.”
Western Australia won’t be coerced
Tightened border restrictions and mandatory vaccinations for entry from other states are where things are at in Western Australia where Premier Mark McGowan is furious at attempts to coerce him into following the national plan.
McGowan has accused the Prime Minister of being on a “mission” that would deliver COVID to Western Australia and he’s having none of it.
“Why are they on this mission to bring COVID into Western Australia, to infect our public? To ensure we shut down parts of our economy? That we lose jobs? That people get sick and some people die,” he said. “Haven’t they seen what’s happening in NSW.”
Meanwhile, vaccination continues in WA but rates in that state are also among the lowest in the country.
South Australia, Tasmania and Northern Territory
For the time being these states are keeping a low profile and borders closed to hotspot areas.
COVID is at bay, although detections have been made in SA’s wastewater, and local businesses are refocusing to the reality of a COVID business model.
One winery in SA has this week announced it wants all patrons to be vaccinated before visiting.
In Tasmania the “Delta Shield” plan governs how the state will operate in the face of a COVID lockdown and a debate is underway on vaccine mandates for healthcare workers and interstate visitors.
Northern Territory is considering a home quarantine model for returning travellers as vaccinations are ramped up in remote communities.
Meanwhile, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was continuing to promote a unified opening plan.
“It’s a reality that we have to live with the virus,” he said. “We can’t eliminate it. Australia should open up as one …. Whether you are in Western Australia, whether you are in Queensland, whether you are in the southern states, you should follow the plan.”
But as NSW announced 12 new deaths from COVID on Friday, including a woman in her 30s, it’s not difficult to understand why, in states that remain virus free, following the plan is a difficult choice to make.