Australia’s Holdout State Will Reopen But Not Before Christmas

by BLOOMBERG / pic by AFP

AUSTRALIA’S largest state said it would open domestic and international borders for fully vaccinated arrivals once 90% of the population aged over 12 had received two shots, in a shift away from one of the world’s strictest Covid-Zero approaches.

Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan on Friday said that reopening wouldn’t be likely until around late January or early February when the target is expected to be achieved, dashing hopes that border restrictions might ease before Christmas. The current double dose level for the state is 63.7%.

“I acknowledge some people will be frustrated,” he told reporters in Perth. “But as difficult as it is, it is for the right reasons. It’s about following the health advice and keeping Western Australia safe.”

Some social distancing measures would also be introduced alongside the easing of border controls, including the mandating of face masks in high-risk indoor settings such as on public transport, while proof of vaccination will be required to attend nightclubs and large events with crowds of more than 1,000 people. McGowan also raised the possibility of restricting access to remote regions to safeguard vulnerable Aboriginal communities there.

Arrivals into Western Australia must be double-dose vaccinated, and will be required to return a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to departure, and undertake a test within 48 hours of entering the state.

The state has remained isolated from the rest of the country for months on end in a bid to keep out surging infections in neighboring states. Residents have largely lived free of restrictions throughout the course of the pandemic.

Even while the nation’s broader “Fortress Australia” approach to keeping out international visitors during the pandemic has caused friction abroad and at home, Western Australia’s containment policy has caused further division domestically. As some Australians were denied the right to retrieve their children or visit dying relatives, the Premier doubled down on his stance of isolation, explaining in a Sept 9 statement that it meant that residents could live in “one of the freest and most open societies in the world.”

While the commodities-heavy state economy has recently been buoyed by strong iron ore sales, the protracted blockades could weigh on the picture longer-term. National carrier Qantas Airways Ltd. has already warned that Perth may lose its status as a transit hub for flights to London, while existing labor shortages across the state may be exacerbated.

Meanwhile, the rest of Australia’s transformation from Covid-Zero isolation to opening back up to the wider world is happening sooner than many expected, with vaccinated overseas travelers and fee-paying foreign students now allowed to enter the country as of November. Victoria state reported 1,343 new virus cases on Friday, and New South Wales added 249.