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Border chaos and travel tears; masks now mandatory in NSW

January 4, 2021 Coronavirus (Covid-19), Headline News No Comments

A rolling outbreak of Covid-19 in New South Wales and a sprinkling of cases in Victoria have triggered a series of abrupt state border closures, dismaying accomodation providers and sending travellers rushing back to their home states to avoid having to start the new year by doing two weeks quarantine.

Victoria closed its border to all of NSW from 11.59pm last Friday. Victorian residents returning since then must get tested and isolate for 14 days. As lengthy traffic jams built up at NSW/Victoria border checkpoints, the chaos served as a reminder that stability in travel can return only when Covid-19 is eliminated, or when the coronavirus is brought under control – perhaps after vaccines are rolled out over the first half of this year.

Until then, sporadic outbreaks of Covid-19 are liable to wreck the plans of holidaymakers, drive tourism operators and airlines to despair, cost the industry billions and raise the spectre of financial ruin.

On Friday, the ABC provided an overview of the border anguish: Victorians race to get home ahead of COVID border closure, leaving NSW tourism operators in tears

The prospect of international travel bubbles, while wonderful, remains on hold until Australia – every state and territory – can stamp out the coronavirus. Western Australia has shown the way. So has New Zealand. Until elimination happens, the only reliable holidays Australian travellers can book are those within their own states.

Weekend breaks are enormously popular, but even those cannot be guaranteed 100%, as regions within states can be declared hotspots and locked down individually if there’s a sudden Covid outbreak – as happened with Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

It is in everyone’s interest (particularly the travel industry’s interest), to push for full elimination of Covid-19 from Australia and mass vaccination.

SYDNEY’S CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK, meanwhile has now entered its third week and has spread to Melbourne.

In an encouraging and much overdue gesture, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian finally relented at the weekend and mandated the wearing of masks on public transport and in public spaces like shopping centres, churches and hairdressers. Masks do not have to be worn at home or in the office. The fine for not wearing a mask when required is $200 in NSW, effective from this morning.

Australia’s peak medical group, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), accuses the NSW government of having put the rest of the country at risk by its decision not to go “hard and early”.  The AMA feels NSW should have imposed a full lockdown and mandatory masks in Sydney quickly, following the outbreak on the Northern Beaches, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

New Zealand has always gone “hard and early” when dealing with the virus, and New Zealand’s record represents the true Gold Standard – second to none.  Nothing benefits the economy like getting rid of the virus, as Covid-free New Zealand proved when it roared back from a coronavirus-induced recession with record economic growth of 14% in the July-September quarter.

In Sydney, the focus has now shifted to the third cricket Test match between Australia and India. It’s set to go ahead at the Sydney Cricket Ground this Thursday, 7 January, before a live audience of about 20,000 people (50% of total capacity). Medical experts have denounced the decision to proceed as reckless, a potential superspreader event in the face of continuing coronavirus outbreaks. They recommend clearing the stands and getting people to watch the match on TV instead.

News Ltd held an online poll over the weekend, posing the question: “Should the SCG be allowed to host the New Year’s Test at 50% capacity?”

With 2500 votes counted yesterday, 80% of respondents had voted: “No – it’s too risky”.

In another piece of disruption, interstate border closures have forced the Sydney Festival to cancel three acts, just days out from its opening.

Comments on aspects of Covid-19 policy in the past few days include:

  • Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Research Program at the Kirby Institute, UNSW Medicine: “We have been advised there is no rush to make vaccines available in Australia until March, and there is no goal of mass vaccination. Instead, we are told we should expect to live with Covid-19 long term. I do not agree with this assessment, as with a vaccine of high enough efficacy, we could achieve elimination of Covid-19 in Australia.”
  • The ABC’s coronavirus commentator, Dr Norman Swan, says Sydney should lock down right now for two weeks – and it should hold the third cricket Test without spectators.

“If you take the cumulative [Covid-19] case numbers, there are around about 150 to date, and we know from research done at the Kirby Institute in Sydney that we under-diagnose by at least a factor of three,” Dr Swan said.

“If you go by the Australian National University figures we under-diagnose by a factor of seven. Kirby Institute’s probably more accurate, so there are 450 to 500 cases out there in New South Wales, not 150.”

Dr Swan said modelling from the University of Sydney’s professor Mikhail Prokopenko shows that every day a lockdown is delayed, it represents a full week at the other end of the outbreak, in terms of getting the cases under control.

He said the experiences in Victoria, as well as overseas in Israel, the UK and US, show “half-hearted measures” do not work.

“We’ve been relying in NSW on the absolutely fantastic work of contact tracers. It is truly amazing … but it won’t take long for that to be overwhelmed.”

Written by Peter Needham

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