SYDNEY – In Australia, the state of Western Australia (WA) – dubbed the “hermit kingdom” in the country – is attempting an unusual experiment as it tries to remain one of the few places in the world with no Covid-19 cases.
But the state government’s approach – and its decision to cancel long-awaited plans to open the state’s borders – has sparked furious debate.
The premier, Mr Mark McGowan, announced last week that he would not reopen the borders on Feb 5 as planned and would instead keep the state indefinitely closed, due to surging outbreaks of the Omicron strain of the Coronavirus in Australia and around the world.
Claiming that Omicron was “a whole new ball game”, Mr McGowan said a new reopening date would be considered in February. He indicated that he wanted as many as 90 per cent of the state’s residents to have had third vaccinations, up from a current rate of about 32 per cent of those aged 18 and over. This new target may not be reached until July.
The move has caused disappointment among families who have been torn apart by the border closures and are desperately hoping to reunite.
A Sydney resident, Mr Sean Matthews, said he had been forced to cancel plans to travel to Perth on Feb 5 to see his father, who has a deadly lung disease.
“I was outraged and sad (about the state’s change of plans),” he told The Sydney Morning Herald.
“I still can’t fly within this country – it’s madness. Especially after I’ve taken all the necessary precautions.”
The state government has eased its border restrictions slightly. From Feb 5, returning residents will be allowed to enter, as will students or those visiting sick family members. But anyone entering must undergo 14 days of self-quarantine. All arrivals must be fully vaccinated.
Last week, Singapore Airlines announced that flights for eligible passengers only from Singapore to Perth, the state capital, would not take off on Feb 5 as previously announced. But SIA noted that its vaccinated travel lane (VTL) flights from Perth to Singapore remained unaffected and would begin as planned on Feb 5.
WA’s ruling Labor party has admitted that it may be impossible to keep Omicron out. Its health minister, Ms Amber-Jade Sanderson, revealed last Sunday that the state’s chief medical officer had advised that Omicron “can’t be eliminated because it’s so transmissible”.
Indeed, the state has been experiencing a minor outbreak, recording 10 new cases on Thursday (Jan 27), down from 24 on Wednesday. In contrast, New South Wales had 17,316 cases on Thursday, Victoria had 13,755, and Queensland had 11,600.
The decision to keep WA closed to outsiders has been heavily criticised by the business community.