Australia will remain a divided nation with the vast mining state of Western Australia cancelling plans to reopen its borders on February 5, citing health risks from a surge in the Omicron coronavirus variant in eastern states.
Australia’s most populous state New South Wales (NSW) on Friday reported its deadliest day of the pandemic
NSW reported 46 deaths of patients with COVID-19, including one infant, while Victoria state saw 20 lives lost. Yet, a drop in hospitalisations in both states did offer hope that the latest outbreak might have peaked.
All states and territories, except Western Australia (WA), have reopened their internal borders under a policy of living with COVID-19, despite a record surge in cases. Western Australia was to follow suit next month.
However, Western Australia’s Premier Mark McGowan made a shock announcement late on Thursday saying that it would be “reckless and irresponsible” to open up, given the rapid spread of Omicron.
Instead, reopening would be delayed indefinitely, or at least until the percentage of triple dose vaccinations reached 80 percent. It is currently around 26 percent.
“If we proceeded with the original plan, we would be deliberately seeding thousands upon thousands of COVID cases into WA and at this point in time that is not what I am going to do,” McGowan told reporters.
McGowan said the original reopening plan was based on the less transmissable Delta strain, not Omicron.
‘If not now, when?’
The state, which is the size of Western Europe with a population of only 2.7 million, has for months been closed off to the rest of the country and the outside world, taking advantage of its natural isolation to keep cases low.
Currently, there are only 83 active cases in the state, compared with 550,000 in the country as a whole, and just a handful of those are Omicron.
The decision will likely anger Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has long urged all the states to open up and learn to live with the virus.
“I know that many West Australians will this morning be very disappointed and they will be asking the question ‘if not now, when?'” Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told Sky News.
Some WA travel conditions are still set to change on February 5, including allowing more people in for compassionate reasons, though they would still have to isolate for 14 days.
The original plan would have allowed in double-vaccinated interstate and international travellers without completing quarantine. Now visitors will need to be triple vaccinated.
“What we are going to do is review the situation over February and watch what is occurring in the east and work out what the best approach is for Western Australia,” McGowan said.
Cases have ballooned in the rest of the country in recent weeks, with illness and absenteeism overloading hospitals and causing considerable disruptions to supply chains.