Western Australia suspends border reopening indefinitely amid Omicron spread

The reopening of Australia’s most isolated state has been suspended indefinitely to allow West Australians to get booster shots, as the more transmissible Omicron variant rips through the nation.

Just one month after promising that from 5 February double-vaccinated interstate and international travellers would be allowed to enter Western Australia without quarantine, the WA premier, Mark McGowan, has said that all entrants will need to self-isolate for 14 days, be triple-dose vaccinated and take tests.

“From 12.01am on Saturday 5 February, the hard border will stay, with new settings that will have a focus on both safety and compassion,” McGowan said.

The premier did not provide a new date for when quarantine-free travel would be allowed into WA.

However, the list of people exempt from the hard borders will increase. People attending funerals, court, visiting those in palliative care or who are terminally ill, or those with strong recent connections, will now be allowed into the state after testing and quarantine.

McGowan labelled the Omicron Covid spread a “new state of emergency” but said the border rules would be reviewed during the coming weeks.

“Unfortunately, the world changed in December, Omicron arrived,” he said. “It would be irresponsible and reckless for the state government to ignore the facts and ignore the reality of the situation playing out on the east coast.

“Allowing hundreds or thousands of Omicron-infected people to fly straight into Perth from 5 February with no testing, no quarantine and no public health measures would cause a flood of Covid across our state. It would cause a surge in cases, a surge in hospitalisations, and result in thousands of people not being able to work or go to school. We know that bad health outcomes lead to economic pain.”

Under the new rules, international travellers will be required to quarantine in a hotel for seven days and at home for seven.

McGowan said the decision was based on research showing that people who received a third dose of vaccine were 64% protected against infection compared with just 4% protection when inoculated twice. He did not cite the source of the research.

“In addition, protection against severe disease is maintained at 80% to 90% for people with two doses, but increases to 98% for people with three doses,” he said.

For two years, as the Covid pandemic has stretched hospitals and killed millions across the globe, WA has remained isolated from the nation, and the world, and has been mostly virus-free.

WA has a third dose rate of just 28% – by 5 February that rate is expected to climb to between 35 and 38%. It is unknown when the state will hit the new 80% or 90% triple-vaccination goalpost, but McGowan said it would take some time.

Perth airport has 45 flights scheduled for 5 February and the tourism council chief executive, Evan Hall, said the industry had been taking bookings, recruiting staff and securing supplies for the reopening. Thousands of passengers were due to fly into Perth airport on 5 February.

The surprise announcement came as the Australian Nursing Federation state secretary, Mark Olson, pushed for the opening to be delayed.

There are 79 confirmed active cases in WA. Of these, 23 are in hotel quarantine and 56 are in self-quarantine. No cases are currently in hospital.

McGowan labelled the Omicron variant an unforeseen catastrophe and said he was watching what was happening on the other side of the nation, citing surging cases in New South Wales.

“I mean, does anyone deny what’s going on over there is not that? People aren’t going to work, hospitals are overflowing, hundreds of people are dying, and the state’s ICUs have got huge numbers of people, lots of people on ventilators.”

WA’s safe transition plan, which was announced in November, set the way for the state’s reopening based on Delta variant. That plan has been replaced.

“If we can hold back this current Omicron outbreak, we will be one of the only places in the world that can achieve a high third dose rate before we reach widespread community transmission – something worth striving for,” McGowan said. “It is worth saving lives, reducing hospitalisations and limiting the number of people with Covid and becoming very ill.”

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